U.S. Airports To Track Visitors
Associated Press
January 5, 2004


WASHINGTON - Starting this week, foreigners entering U.S. airports and seaports from all but 28 nations will have their fingerprints scanned and their photographs taken as part of a new program to tighten border security.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge scheduled an appearance Monday at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Other top federal officials also planned to be at airports across the nation to help draw attention to the new policy.

All 115 U.S. airports that handle international flights and 14 major seaports are covered by the program, under which Customs officials can instantly check an immigrant or visitor's criminal background.

Called US-VISIT, or U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, the program will check an estimated 24 million foreigners each year, though some will be repeat visitors.

The only exceptions will be visitors from 28 countries - mostly European nations whose citizens are allowed to come to the United States for up to 90 days without visas.

Inkless fingerprints will be taken and checked instantly against a national digital database for criminal backgrounds and any terrorist lists. The process will be repeated when the foreigners leave the country as an extra security measure and to ensure they complied with visa limitations.

Homeland Security spokesman Bill Strassberger said that once screeners become proficient, the extra security will take only 10 to 15 seconds per person. Foreign travelers also will continue to pass through regular Customs points and answer questions.

Photographs will be used to help create a database for law enforcement. The travel data is supposed to be securely stored and made available only to authorized officials on a need-to-know basis.

A similar program is to be installed at 50 land border crossings by the end of next year, Strassberger said.

Brazilian police started fingerprinting and photographing Americans arriving at Sao Paulo's airport last week in response to the new U.S. regulations.

Brazil's Foreign Ministry has requested that Brazilians be removed from the U.S. list.

"At first, most of the Americans were angered at having to go through all this, but they were usually more understanding once they learned that Brazilians are subjected to the same treatment in the U.S.," Wagner Castilho, press officer for the federal police in Sao Paulo, said of those arriving at Sao Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport last Thursday.

The U.S. system consists of a small box that digitally scans fingerprints and a spherical computer camera that snaps pictures. It will be used for foreign nationals traveling on tourist, business and student visas who enter through an airport or seaport.

The new system will gradually phase out a paper-based system that Congress mandated be modernized following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

A person whose fingerprints or photos raise questions would not be turned away automatically. The visa holder would be sent to secondary inspection for further questions and checks. Officials have said false hits on the system have been less than 0.1 percent in trial runs.

The system was scheduled to begin operation New Year's Day but was delayed to avoid the busy holiday travel period.

Congress provided $368 million to produce the system and put it in airports, but only provided $330 million of the $400 million President Bush requested to put the system in land borders in 2004.

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