Beginning next month, everyone traveling to the United States with a U.S. visa will be fingerprinted and photographed upon arrival. It's part of an expanded homeland security program intended to better monitor the half billion foreigners who legally arrive in the United States during a typical year, and to keep out anyone who may be on a terrorist watch list. A program that had been used to track people arriving from some parts of the world had proven controversial.

If you're coming to the United States on a U.S. visa, be prepared to be fingerprinted and photographed when you arrive at an air or seaport beginning January 5.

"It's a comprehensive entry-exit system where we will know who has arrived, what is the purpose of their visit and have they departed the United States," said Bill Strasberger, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is expanding a program that has been used to track foreigners arriving from 25 Middle Eastern countries. "Overstays have been a problem in the past. This really is not that much different from systems that have already been in place in many countries around the world."

He said it's all part of an increasingly rigorous and controversial system to monitor foreigners arriving in America, especially from countries "where al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations are active. That was the first step to developing a comprehensive entry-exit system which was something that Congress mandated we develop back in 1996. Everyone coming through will have their right and left index finger [printed], as well as a digital photo taken if they're entering the United States as a visitor carrying a visa."

Three of the September 11 hijackers were in the United States illegally, on expired visas, at the time of the 2001 attacks.

This expanded program to monitor foreigners in the country has been used for the past year to track mostly Middle Eastern males, who until Tuesday had been required to periodically reregister as long as they remained in the United States. As of September, nearly 200,000 people were registered. Hundreds of others have been deported, most for overstaying their visas. Officials say the old program was eliminated to make way for the new system that will include anyone traveling on a visa. Officials defend the program.

"We want to know who is arriving in the United States, where they're going, and to make sure that we know that they've departed the United States," the spokesman said.

But the plan has been criticized by minority and civil rights groups. "The program is discriminatory in its design because it focuses on people based on their country of origin," said Lucas Guttentag, director of immigration rights at the American Civil Liberties Union, "based on their nationality, essentially Muslim countries around the world, and it assumes that anybody from those countries is a threat to the United States."

But U.S. immigration officials have long been under pressure, especially from Congress, to keep better track of foreigners after they enter the United States. Last year, a Congressional investigation found that nearly half of the 4,100 registered immigrants in the United States wanted for questioning in connection with the 9/11 terrorist attacks could not be found. Still not known is how effective this new system for tracking foreigners will be or whether it will further discourage travel to the United States, which has fallen off sharply in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.