updated 3/4/2004 6:35:49 PM ET 2004-03-04T23:35:49

The Bush administration may back off plans to require that millions of visa-carrying Mexicans who make short visits to the United States and stay close to the border be fingerprinted and photographed to get into the country.

Asa Hutchinson, the undersecretary of Homeland Security for border and transportation, told the House Government Reform Committee that the administration might roll back plans for the extra security procedures for Mexicans with so-called laser visas.

Afterward, he went a bit further, telling reporters, “I think that is what probably will be necessary.”

A government official and a congressional source said on condition of anonymity that  Hutchinson had planned to use the appearance on Capitol Hill to announce that the administration would change the policy. His prepared remarks reflected that.

But just before he testified, someone in the administration raised concerns about announcing the plan before all security issues had been resolved, and Hutchinson would say only that the idea was under consideration, according to the government official.

The move, which would be a concession to Mexican President Vicente Fox, comes on the eve of his visit to President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Mexicans who have so-called laser visas currently are allowed to stay in the country for three days provided they stay close to the border. Such visas are issued to people who have undergone background checks and consulate interviews where they are fingerprinted and photographed. The visas generally are held by workers and people who need to make frequent quick trips across the border.

But as part of the new US-VISIT program, those people were to be fingerprinted and photographed before crossing the border before the end of the year. The plan being announced by Hutchinson would rescind that requirement.

Mexico saw discrimination
US-VISIT was developed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to ensure that people on terrorist watch lists and other criminals did not get into the country. The first part, which took effect in January, requires that visitors from certain countries traveling on visas and entering at 115 major airports and 14 seaports be fingerprinted and photographed.

The program will be added to the 50 busiest land ports later this year. Fox was angry that under the expanded plan, Mexicans would have been photographed and fingerprinted before entering the United States, while Canadians would not.

Mexican border officials and officials in U.S. border communities feared that the program could lead to long delays or prompt fewer people to enter the country. Either scenario would hurt local economies that rely on steady flows of visitors.

As part of the revised plan, the government will install machines that can read the electronic information in the laser visas at the 50 busiest land ports. The machines are at only a handful of border points now.

Nearly 360 million travelers entered the United States at all the nation’s land ports of entry in 2002.

A program to log foreigners’ departures also is being developed.

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