Secretary of State Colin Powell Wednesday defended the new immigration security procedures at U.S. airports and said the Bush administration aims to further streamline the process. The new measures have sparked a conflict with Brazil, where a judge ordered that U.S. visitors undergo similar though more time-consuming screening.
Mr. Powell says the new security system is intended to protect, not harass, travelers entering the United States, and that most people who have undergone the screening have encountered no problems and been understanding of the reasons for it.
In effect since Monday, the system called US-VISIT requires entering visitors to be digitally photographed and fingerprinted. Identification data and passport information are entered into a computer system containing watch lists of suspected terrorists and other criminals.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is administering the system, says it has added only an extra minute to immigration processing.
But it has been criticized by some abroad and a Brazilian federal judge ordered retaliatory screening of Americans entering that country, including police-style ink fingerprinting that has resulted in hours-long airport delays for U.S. citizens.
In a talk with reporters in Washington, Mr. Powell - who discussed the issue by phone with his Brazilian counterpart Celso Amorim - said the U.S. security measures are not unreasonable and have generally been well received by travelers themselves.
"A couple of fingerprints and a picture," he said. "It is not delaying people very long at the ports of arrival. And a number of the people who have gone through have done it without any problem what so ever. Most of them do without any problem whatsoever and they recognize why we're doing it. We're not doing it to harass anybody. We're not doing it to keep anyone but the wrong anyone out of the country. And to the extent that it is protecting all those who travel on airlines, I think people will understand it."
Mr. Powell said U.S. airport delays will eventually be reduced as American diplomatic posts abroad acquire the equipment needed to do the screening at the time when potential visitors apply for U.S. visas.
Citizens of some 150 countries are subject to the photograph and fingerprint requirement. Visitors from some 30 countries which have reciprocal no-visa agreements with the United States are exempted, though their passport data is examined by computer.
The United States complained that the Brazilian requirements were hastily-prepared and discriminatory, since they applied only to Americans. Officials said Tuesday that some U.S. citizens arriving in Rio de Janeiro had experienced nine-hour airport delays.