Starting Monday, authorities at 115 American airports and 14 major seaports began fingerprinting and photographing arriving foreigners as part of a new program the Bush administration says will help keep terrorists out of U.S. borders.
The new "U.S. VISIT" program covers an estimated 23 million foreign visitors to the United States.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said it is part of a more comprehensive program to ensure that U.S. borders are open to visitors, but closed to terrorists. "Customs and border protection officers will now capture an inkless digital fingerprint, or finger scan, as well as a digital photograph, to be matched against information gathered at visa-issuing posts overseas," he explained.
Secretary Ridge spoke at the Atlanta International Airport, in the southern U.S. state of Georgia. The airport was a test site for the new system. "It is easy for travelers to use, but hard for terrorists to avoid," said Mr. Ridge. "It takes just a couple of seconds. In fact, during the pilot test here in Atlanta, only 15 seconds were added to processing times, bringing the total entry procedure to just more than one minute."
Mr. Ridge said during the pilot program, authorities turned up 21 people on the FBI's criminal watch list for such crimes as drug offenses, rape, and visa fraud.
The Secretary added that only authorized officials will have access to the information gathered, strictly on what he called a "need-to-know" basis.
Citizens from 28 countries, mostly in Europe, will be exempt because they do not require visas to visit the United States.
Critics say the program may cause travel delays and could prove ineffective if a potential terrorist has never been officially photographed or fingerprinted. Foreigners also will checked as they leave the country as an extra security measure and to ensure they comply with visa limitations. A plan to photograph and fingerprint foreigners departing the United States is not expected to go into effect until at least the end of the year.