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U.S. widening checks on foreign visitors

The Bush administration is expanding a fingerprinting program to include millions of travelers from some of America’s closest allies, U.S. officials said Friday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A program requiring foreigners to be fingerprinted and photographed before entering the country is being expanded to include millions of travelers from some of America’s closest allies, U.S. officials said Friday.

The move affects citizens in 27 countries — including Britain, Japan and Australia — who had been allowed to travel within the United States without visas for as long as 90 days.

Under changes that will take effect by Sept. 30, they will be fingerprinted and photographed when they enter through any of 115 international airports and 14 seaports.

There are no changes in unique rules covering visits by Canadians and Mexicans.

Deadline not met
The Bush administration made the decision after determining that the so-called “visa-waiver countries” would not meet a deadline of October to have , said Asa Hutchinson, the undersecretary Homeland Security for border and transportation security. Such passports include fingerprint and iris identification features that make the documents virtually impossible to counterfeit.

But citizens from those countries still will not have to go through the consulate interviews, background checks, fingerprinting and photographing that foreigners from other countries must do to obtain a visa.

Congress passed the US-VISIT program in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In January, the U.S. government began fingerprinting and photographing visitors from nations other than the visa-waiver countries at the border. About 5 million people have been processed so far.

Anger, acceptance abroad
Foreign governments were largely understanding of the new plan, but many citizens reacted with dismay and incredulity.

“Really, why? What are they trying to do, alienate their last remaining allies? I think it’s a strange move,” said Arjan Blom, 31, who studies history at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

In London, Louis Michael said the measure was “demeaning” and would probably stop him from visiting the United States.

“There’s 1,001 places to go, so why not go somewhere where you’re not going to get treated like a criminal?” he said.

But Martine de Haan, a spokeswoman for the Dutch Foreign Ministry, said the plan was Washington’s prerogative.

“It’s America’s right to do that, if they feel it’s necessary for security,” she said.

She added that the Netherlands was studying how to include biometric information in its next generation of passports and planned to comply with whatever decision Congress made on a deadline.

In London, officials said the government had no plans to require U.S. citizens to provide fingerprints and photographs and said it would start issuing biometric passports in mid-2005. When US-VISIT began last winter, by requiring Americans visiting that country to be fingerprinted and photographed.

The visa-waiver countries are: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.