updated 1/3/2005 8:26:52 PM ET 2005-01-04T01:26:52

Foreign visitors at the 50 busiest land border crossings in 10 states are now being fingerprinted as part of the government’s new biometric screening system, the Homeland Security Department announced on Monday.

The system, called US-VISIT, scans photographs of the visitor’s face and index fingers into a computer, which are matched with federal agencies’ criminal databases. The system is in place in Arizona, California, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Vermont and Washington.

Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson told reporters that U.S. officials have arrested or denied admission to 372 criminals or immigration violators since the system began last year at 15 seaports and 115 airports. About 17 million people have been enrolled.

“Because of the US-VISIT biometric technology, the United States is safer,” said Hutchinson, noting that the system was in place two days before the end-of-year deadline.

Though no known terrorists have been caught by US-Visit, Hutchinson said it’s possible that it kept out someone traveling on a forged passport who meant to do harm.

The system is actually speeding travelers through processing at ports of entry, he said. It now takes less than 5 minutes to process a visitor at Laredo, Texas; before the program was implemented, it took more than 10 minutes.

Missing pieces
Hutchinson acknowledged that much still remains to be done. The system, for example, doesn’t check against all federal databases. And the FBI only shares an updated biometric database of terrorists with Homeland Security about once a month, he said.

Another challenge is to set up an exit system so that officials can keep track of foreigners leaving the country. Homeland Security is testing different technologies for an exit system at five ports of entry and will expand the tests to others this year.

US-VISIT still has to be expanded to another 115 land border crossings by the end of 2005. By then, it’s expected to process 40 million people crossing U.S. borders, which is less than 10 percent of the 450 million annual border crossings. About 250 million, though, are by U.S. citizens, who aren’t subject to the system, said Homeland Security spokesman Dennis Murphy.

Canadian citizens and Mexican citizens with border crossing cards are exempt.

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