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Plans to Fingerprint Foreigners Visiting US Stirs Controversy - 2002-06-05

Bush administration officials announced a controversial plan Wednesday that would require tens of thousands of foreigners visiting the United States to register with the government and be photographed and fingerprinted. The plan is already drawing fire from civil liberties activists and Arab-American groups who fear that Muslims and Middle Easterners will be most affected.

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the new guidelines at a Washington news conference. They are intended to help the government track up to 100,000 visitors who come to the United States each year as tourists, students and workers.

Mr. Ashcroft says the new guidelines are intended to help monitor those visitors who represent what he calls "elevated national security concern" who intend to stay in the United States for more than 30 days.

"The first component of the system is fingerprinting and photographing at the border," he said. "It is critically important that we stop known or suspected terrorists from entering the country. Fingerprints are essential to that enterprise."

The fingerprints will be put through a database of known terrorists and criminals to see if there is a match.

The attorney general says those individuals considered a security risk will also have to report to immigration authorities within 30 days to register and repeat the process at least once a year.

It is expected that the new entry guidelines will have the most significant impact on Muslims and visitors from the Middle East, especially young men.

But Attorney General Ashcroft declined to be specific about which countries will get the most scrutiny when pressed by reporters. "No country is totally exempt and no country, except those countries that are listed on the [list] of state sponsors of terrorism, has a universal imposition [of being checked]," he said. Civil liberties groups and Arab-American organizations were quick to condemn the new guidelines. The American Civil Liberties Union called the new practice discriminatory and ineffective.

The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations also opposes the new procedures. "It sends a racist message to Muslim and Arab countries and Muslim and Arab people who live in the United States who are law-abiding visitors and non-green card holders," said Nihad Awad, the group's Executive Director.

Attorney General Ashcroft says the new entry and exit guidelines are based on immigration laws from the 1950s that have been largely ignored in recent years.