Authorities began scanning fingerprints and taking photographs of arriving foreigners Monday as part of a new program that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said will make borders "open to travelers but closed to terrorists."
The program, aimed at letting Customs officials instantly check an immigrant or visitor's criminal background, targets foreigners entering the 115 U.S. airports that handle international flights, as well as 14 major seaports. The only exceptions will be visitors from 27 countries - mostly European nations - whose citizens are allowed to come to the United States for up to 90 days without visas.
Ridge was at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to meet with some of the first foreign passengers to go through the new system.
He described the move as "part of a comprehensive program to make sure our borders remain open to travelers but closed to terrorists."
"It's easy for travelers to use but hard for terrorists to avoid," Ridge said Monday.
In a pilot program at Hartsfield-Jackson that preceded Monday's nationwide implementation, authorities turned up 21 people on the FBI's criminal watch list for such crimes as drug offenses, rape and visa fraud, Ridge said.
Foreigners also will be checked as they leave the country as an extra security measure and to ensure they complied with visa limitations.
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're asked about their visits.
But one traveler doubted the program would deter terrorists because they could come from the 27 countries that are exempt from visa checking.
"It's easy, but I don't think it's going to be effective," said Carlos Thome, who flew in Monday from Sao Paulo, Brazil. "You can also have terrorists in Europe."
Some passengers said they supported the extra scrutiny.
"I don't have any real ethical problems with it, just the inconvenience of having to wait a little bit longer. But it's not a big deal," said Bradley Oakley-Brown, who was changing planes at Atlanta en route from South Africa to Wisconsin.
Called US-VISIT, or U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, the program will check up to estimated 24 million foreigners each year, though some will be repeat visitors.
Inkless fingerprints will be taken and checked instantly against the national digital database for criminal backgrounds and any terrorist lists.
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.
Brazil's Foreign Ministry has requested that Brazilians be removed from the U.S. list, and police started fingerprinting and photographing Americans arriving at Sao Paulo's airport last week in response to the new U.S. regulations.
"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.," Brazilian police spokesman Wagner Castilho said last week.
The U.S. system consists of a small box that digitally scans fingerprints and a spherical computer camera. It will gradually replace a paper-based system that Congress ordered to 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.
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