Image: Foreign visitor gets fingerprinted
NBC News
Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge watches as a foreign visitor gets fingerprinted and photographed at a US-VISIT station at Atlanta's airport.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/5/2004 7:46:30 PM ET 2004-01-06T00:46:30

Foreigners entering U.S. airports and seaports from all but 27 nations were having their fingerprints scanned and their photographs taken beginning Monday as part of a new program to tighten border security.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who was in Atlanta to help launch the program at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, said Monday on NBC’s “Today” show that the pilot program before the formal launch had led to 21 foreigners’ being denied entry because they had earlier been deported for criminal or other legal issues.

“We want to keep our borders open. We are a welcoming country, but we want to secure the country as well,” Ridge said. “We want them to come to the United States to work and to visit and to study, but we also need to make sure we have a record of who comes into the country and when they leave.”

Most passengers breezed through the fingerprinting and picture-taking Monday, spending only a few seconds more than they normally would at the Customs station where they were asked about their visits.

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

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

Some nations not affected
The only exceptions will be visitors from 27 countries — most of them European nations whose citizens are allowed to come to the United States for up to 90 days without visas. Ridge said citizens from those countries would have machine-readable passports by October that provided the same information as what the U.S. system checked for.

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

Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, said that once screeners became proficient, the extra security would 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 are 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.

Policy accepted, with reservations
Travelers criticized the new U.S. policy as heavy-handed, but some voiced grudging acceptance of the need for tighter security.

At the airport in Mexico City, Mexicans returning to the United States arrived up to six hours before their flights were scheduled to take off Monday.

Many said the new measures were inconvenient, but most appeared to be moving through security and check-ins with few delays.

“I think it is a little much,” said Constanza Carrillo, 30, a computer software technician who lives in Denver. “But if it feels safer for the government of the United States and for Americans, we don’t have a problem with it.”

Victor Fuentes, 18, a Mexican returning to the United States to study at a high school in Chicago, said more security was better than less.

“It’s fine with me because it is for the safety of everyone,” he said.

However, in Brazil, which has requested that Brazilians be removed from the U.S. list, police started fingerprinting and photographing Americans arriving at Sao Paulo’s airport last week in retaliation.

“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.,” said Wagner Castilho, a spokesman for Brazilian police.

Ridge said that the United States was “prepared to live by one international standard” and that he felt it would become the system adopted by Washington.

Sept. 11 origin
The U.S. system, which  consists of a small box that digitally scans fingerprints and a camera that snaps digital pictures, will gradually phase out a paper-based system that Congress mandated be modernized following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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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 it was delayed to avoid the busy holiday travel period.

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

Additional background is online at http://www.dhs.gov/us-visit.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Foreign travelers fingerprinted

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