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Homeland Security Official Praises New US Visitors Screening Program - 2004-01-08

U.S. Homeland Security officials say the new photo and fingerprint system for foreign visitors, implemented this week, is working well.

Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson of the Department of Homeland Security told reporters in New York the U.S.-VISIT program is making legitimate travel easier and is already blocking entry to violators of U.S. laws.

U.S.-VISIT, short for the U.S.-Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology program, uses biometric technology to match the fingerprints and photographs of visitors who are required to have visas with information filed at U.S. consulates abroad. Mr. Hutchinson says the quick digital checks are being used to build "trusted" traveler profiles.

"It will minimize the secondary questions that are asked of you because we will be able to biometrically identify you as the same traveler who came in last month and complied with your visa," he said. "We will welcome you and say you've got a great track record, come right on through."

The program does not apply to citizens from 28 mostly European nations who are not required to have visas to enter the United States. Mr. Hutchinson says almost 84,000 international visitors have entered the United States using the program since it went into effect Monday at 115 airports and 14 seaports. So far, he says the program has turned up 30 individuals who are either on "watch" lists or using fraudulent documents. For example, Mr. Hutchinson pointed out that Wednesday night a visitor from El Salvador presented what appeared to be proper documentation at New York's Kennedy Airport.

"Whenever we took his biometric fingerscan, it came up as a 'hit' in our system," he said. "This gentleman, we learned, entered the country illegally in 1996. He was working in this country. He used false documents to leave and come back. He indicated that he entered the country 12 times in the last year, all under false documents. He had actually committed some minor criminal offenses while here. But he was biometrically identified and removed."

Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson says he expects many other nations to follow the United States' lead by putting similar programs in place to ensure greater security for travelers and counter terrorism.