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US Immigration Officers Increase Scrutiny of Foreign Visitors - 2004-01-22

New figures from the Department of Homeland Security indicate the number of people being sent for secondary screening at U.S. border entry points has increased dramatically over the past two years. Officials say the increased numbers are the result of heightened security and improved technology.

The number of people being sent for secondary screening at U.S. border entry points jumped by 500,000 between 2002 and 2003.

Zachary Mann, a senior special agent and spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security, says Customs and Border Patrol agents are being much more cautious about who enters the United States following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"What happened is that after the attacks we decided we needed to take a closer look at our borders, so we have had an increase in the scrutiny of people and cargo crossing those borders," he said.

According to Mr. Mann, much of the increased scrutiny is taking place at land crossing points along the U.S.-Canada border, where there was little scrutiny before the September 11 attacks. He also says while Border Patrol and Customs agents still look for drug smugglers and visa violators, their priorities before September 11, their main preoccupation now is to prevent terrorists or terrorist-related materials from entering the U.S.

Mr. Mann says much of the reason for the increase in secondary screening is that customs officers have a limited amount of time to process visitors at their first point of contact, so secondary screening becomes necessary.

"When you come across the border whether it is an airport, a seaport or a land border crossing, you go through a primary line, which is where you present your documents," he explained. "You are asked some questions by the first officer you see. Based on those responses you maybe someone that we want to look at more closely or talk to. That does not necessarily mean that there is something wrong, it is just that we want to get a better picture and we have a very limited amount of time to process a large amount of people. So what we do is send you to a secondary booth where someone will talk to you and find out a little bit more about you and then based on what happens there if you are a criminal wanted by law enforcement you will be arrested, or if it turns out it was just a misunderstanding, you will probably be set free and to about your way. There is a wide variety of things that can happen - it is a case by case scenario."

Customs officials also say they have improved databases that now hold many more names of suspected criminals and terrorists, which has also led to more people being sent for secondary inspections and interviews.

The September 11 terrorist attacks exposed flaws in the screening of visitors to the United States. Two of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks were admitted to the U.S. despite undergoing secondary screening for visa violations.

Earlier this month, U.S. immigration authorities further tightened security by requiring some foreign visitors at border entry points to be photographed and fingerprinted when they enter the United States. Customs and immigration officials say the process takes less than a minute, and so far the program has not resulted in substantial delays for visitors.