The Bush administration is implementing a new security system to verify the identities of foreigners traveling to the United States with U.S. visas.
It has been a vexing problem in the post-September 11 era: how to be absolutely certain that foreigners who arrive in the United States are, in fact, the same people who secured visas at U.S. embassies abroad and not terrorists traveling under assumed, or switched, identities.
Beginning January 5, visa applicants will have their pictures taken and fingerprints scanned using inkless, digital technology at U.S. embassies and consulates. This so-called "bio-metric" information will be entered into a database for comparison when the travelers reach the United States, according to U.S. Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson:
"There will be a digital finger scan and there will be a photograph that will be taken," he said. "And for the first time in history we will be able to bio-metrically confirm the identity of the visa traveler to the United States."
Called the "U.S. Visit" program, it will apply to all visa holders regardless of country of origin. The goal is the rapid verification of a previously-established identity. Mr. Hutchinson says visa holders will also be scanned upon their departure, so as to determine whether visitors have overstayed their visas.
As a first step, the program is being implemented at 115 U-S airports and a smaller number of seaports. By the year 2006, the program is scheduled to be expanded to land entry points from both Canada and Mexico.
Mr. Hutchinson admitted that, if a traveler is a citizen of a country with a reciprocal visa-waiver program, then no fingerprint scanning will be performed.
The Undersecretary said the scanning and verification procedure is designed to be quick and non-invasive. He said, after an initial trip to the United States, repeat visitors will find the program actually saves time and spares them hassles.
"The next time that traveler comes to the United States, we will quickly confirm their identity, that they traveled before and honored the terms of the visa, and they will be facilitated in their travel as they continue to come to the United States," he said.
Mr. Hutchinson says the United States will continue to be a welcoming country for foreign visitors. But he stressed that, in an era of global terrorism, the United States must have the ability to scientifically verify the identities of those who arrive from other nations.