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First Day of New US Visa Program a 'Success' - 2004-01-06


The director of the new visa security program that went into effect Monday at U.S. airports and seaports called the first day of the program a success in the war against terrorism. At the same time, though, critics raise their own concerns.

The new program is called U.S.-VISIT, an acronym for U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology. Under U.S.-VISIT, foreign travelers holding an American visa and arriving at any of 115 American airports or 14 major seaports will now be digitally fingerprinted and photographed. Authorities are also developing procedures to check visitors' biometric information upon departure.

U.S. authorities are planning to institute similar practices at 50 land ports of entry by the end of this year.

Program director Jim Williams says Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge wanted to give people a positive impression of the new program.

"He chose the name U.S.-VISIT because he wanted to reflect the fact that the United States is a welcoming nation and wants to continue to be that welcoming nation," he explains.

The U.S.-VISIT director says the department's outreach efforts include signs at airports and conference calls with journalists in Britain, Poland and Russia. "Somehow, in terms of what we were planning for U.S.-VISIT, we missed one judge in Brazil," he said.

Mr. Williams was referring to a court order requiring U.S. tourists to Brazil to be fingerprinted and photographed. The Brazilian identification system went into effect on January 1.

An official statement from Brazil's Ministry of Foreign Affairs characterizes the move as reciprocal, saying Americans traveling to Brazil will be subject to the same procedures as Brazilians traveling to the United States.

Meanwhile, Rick Webster, of the non-profit Travel Industry Association of America, says his group basically supports U.S.-VISIT. But, at the same time, he raised several concerns, such as the possibility that serious delays could discourage foreign visitors. He added that there hasn't been enough public information on who is covered and who is not.

"The Japanese, as much as we tell them that the vast majority of them coming here visa-free, will not be impacted by U.S.-VISIT now, they need to hear it again and again and again," he emphasized.

Visitors from 27, mostly European, countries who do not need a visa to enter the United States are exempt from the new regulations. But these so-called visa waiver countries have until October 26 to issue travel documents with biometric identifiers.

Former Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, believes post-September 11 immigration programs have unfairly targeted visitors from Arab countries.

U.S.-VISIT Deputy Director Robert Mocny points out that the American government is trying to move away from programs that give the impression that it is targeting any one group. "The fingerprinting and photographing applies universally to every citizen from any country coming to the U.S. with a visa," he said.

Meanwhile, Ms. Oakar says U.S. hospitals are losing billions of dollars because of a decrease in the number of foreigners - many from the Middle East - coming to the United States for medical treatment.

"I just talked to an attorney here who was stationed in Riyadh , and he said, 'what happens if someone has an emergency, needs emergency open-heart surgery, from Kuwait or Lebanon, or wherever? Are they going to make them go through this whole process and so on?'" said Ms. Oakar.

She adds that foreign travelers will go elsewhere if visiting the United States becomes too much of a hassle.

"Germany and England actually have ads saying, 'Come to our country. We won't harass you. We won't make you go through all this razzmatazz.' And I think this is something we have to be concerned with," she said.

The initial reviews for U.S.-VISIT are mostly positive. Some foreign visitors are critical, saying they are confused about the process and find it humiliating. Many others, though, have said they don't mind because the system is aimed at protecting the country.