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New U.S. Border Checks Meet with Praise and Concern - 2004-01-19

Since January 5 most visa-carrying foreigners arriving in America are fingerprinted and photographed as part of a homeland security program. Many specialists praise these new “biometric” measures as efficient and necessary. But some analysts warn against possible abuses. The program has also stirred some controversy abroad. VOA’s Jaroslaw Anders looks at the issue in this edition of Focus.

It only takes a few seconds. You put your finger on an electronic scanner, you pose in front of a digital camera, and – presto. Welcome to the United States. Unless, of course, you are on a wanted list or your scan does not match data attached to your visa application. Exempt from this procedure are citizens of 27 countries under the Visa Waver Program, who do not need to apply for short-term American visas.

While announcing the new biometric measures Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security, said he hoped most visitors would find them useful, simple and fair. ”I believe that this system that we are implementing will be found by our foreign guests to be something that is inoffensive, that is easy, that is quick, but that will give them the confidence that our transportation system will be safe, and that as they enter the United States, they will not be entering with other people that might pose a danger,” says Mr. Hutchinson.

That was, in fact, the opinion of many foreign visitors who recently arrived at Dulles International Airport near Washington. But some travelers worry that biometric information gathered by U.S. consular and immigration authorities may get into the wrong hands. A visitor from Great Britain, speaking to the Voice of America on the condition of anonymity, said he was not sure who was going to have access to that information. He was particularly worried about the possibility of “identity theft,” which in his view plays into the terrorists’ hands. Tom Ridge, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, declared that only authorized officials would have access to the information on a strictly “need-to-know” basis. But some analysts worry that the very ability of the government to gather and process such amounts of data may lead to abuse.

Clyde Wayne Crews, Director of Technology Policy at the Cato Institute in Washington, says there is nothing wrong with using modern technology to check a visitor’s identity. But in his view it should never be used to create permanent records on people who are not under a court-ordered investigation. “If the program is run like that,” says Mr. Crews, “you can make a case for it. But the question is can you trust the government to discard that information on individual citizens?”

Analysts agree that increased security must be at least partly responsible for the fact that since September 11, 2001 there has not been a single terrorist attack on U.S. territory. But Mr. Crews of the Cato Institute suggests that may be less a result of new surveillance methods than of low-tech improvements like strengthening of the cockpit doors, and psychological factors like the knowledge on the part of the terrorist that “if he does make a move toward that cockpit door, he is going to be jumped by passengers and wrestled to the floor.”

Despite the new caution in dealing with foreign visitors U.S. officials stress they want America to remain an open and welcoming society. President Bush said: “America is not a fortress. We never want to be a fortress.” Janice Jacobs, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, adds that America is not abandoning its “open doors” policy. “We don’t want to become a gated society. We welcome legitimate travelers and visitors here and we want to do our best when we’re processing visas to identify the people who might be high risk, who might be coming here to do us harm, but to let the others get their visas as quickly as possible,” said Ms. Jacobs.

Deborah Meyers is an analyst at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute (MPI), an independent, non-partisan think-tank that studies immigration policies and the movement of people worldwide. She points out that in order to project that “open” image the U.S. government must show it tries not only to protect American borders but also to facilitate the visa process for law-abiding foreigners. Most of all, it needs to demonstrate enhanced border checks are part of a far-reaching security campaign. “I think the bottom line is that we cannot fight terrorism through anti-immigration measures alone. These measures need to be part of a more comprehensive approach to anti-terrorist efforts that would involve overseas intelligence work and information sharing within our own government,” said Deborah Meyers.

Many European visitors compare scrupulous U.S. border identity checks with the apparent lack of similar safeguards within the European Union. They point out that although some Western European countries are also targets of terrorist attacks, they seem much less concerned about international traffic. But Deborah Meyers says such comparisons can be misleading. She points out that many European countries requite a national identity card, which is not the case in the United States. “So one can actually argue that they are already more controlled in Europe,” says the MPI analyst, adding that in Europe, as in America, most of the screening of travelers is done behind the scenes, through information sharing among domestic and foreign law enforcement agencies.

Many travelers may feel uneasy about all that scrutiny. Some nations find it offensive and have threatened retaliation. Americans traveling to Brazil are now subject to the same procedures as Brazilians traveling to the United States. The Greeks are upset they are being fingerprinted despite being members of both NATO and the European Union. Some new U.S. allies in Central and Eastern Europe believe they should be exempt from visa requirements altogether. But Deborah Meyers says tight immigration controls are simply a feature of modern life because “a globalized, interconnected world poses an advantage to terrorists as well as to facilitation of travel.”

Last year about 6 million people applied for American visas worldwide. Analysts agree that U.S. consular and immigration authorities face a daunting and sensitive task in helping the many that deserve America’s hospitality and stopping the few that intend to break her laws or threaten her security.

Valer Gergely and Ola Michalska contributed to this report.