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National | IMMIGRATION SECURITY: New fingerprinting and photograph rules at U.S. airports raise the usual complaints from the usual sources, but will the Bush administration's new US-VISIT program make the country safer from terrorism?

Issue: "Roe v. Wade @ 31," Jan. 17, 2004

Under the soaring roof of Washington's Dulles International Airport last week, friends and loved ones did what they always do at airports: They waited. Each time the doors swung open, disgorging new passengers into the arrivals hall, eager families leaned forward in search of weary, familiar faces just in from their trans-Atlantic flights. One man held a single, peach-colored rose. A "Welcome Home" balloon hovered in mid-air over a waiting family.

Across the tarmac, in the cavernous immigration area of the international terminal, the U.S. government offered a welcome of its own: Press your right index finger on the electronic pad. Now your left. Look at the camera. Thank you.

At Dulles and more than 100 other airports around the country, loved ones would have to wait just a minute longer. First, there was the hunt for terrorists to deal with.

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In the wake of Sept. 11, Congress in late 2001 ordered new, high-tech screening procedures to keep terrorists from slipping into the country unnoticed. On Jan. 5, after months of testing and design, those procedures finally were rolled out nationwide. Known as the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, or US-VISIT, the program calls for digital fingerprints and photographs of some 15 million travelers arriving in the United States each year.

Critics were quick to condemn the new policy. Timothy Edgar of the ACLU called the US-VISIT program "a large privacy violation waiting to happen, with records garnered under the program likely retained even after you've become a citizen, and a provision permitting their sharing with foreign governments.

"Nobody is arguing with the principle of monitoring who enters and exits the country, but there are ways to do it, and ways not to do it," Mr. Edgar said. "So far, we haven't even come up with an effective system, let alone one that doesn't treat every Arab and Muslim, even every visitor, as a potential terrorist."

At Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport on the first day of the new system, Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge addressed privacy concerns: "Legitimate travelers who fall into America's open arms should know that they have nothing to fear in this new system. Information gathered will be kept strictly to authorized officials on a need-to-know basis and will be governed by the Privacy Act at all times. However, US-VISIT will not be kind to those who think that privacy can hide their hate or their intention to harm."

Aside from the predictable hand-wringing of the ACLU-after all, foreign tourists don't appear to be covered by the constitutional right to privacy discovered by the Supreme Court in 1972-a bigger concern among many critics is that US-VISIT simply has too many holes to be effective in stopping terrorists. For instance, although the program is already in place at 115 airports and 14 seaports across the country, millions of visitors continue to pour across America's land borders without the high-tech checks.

In addition, passport holders from 27 countries-including much of Europe, Canada, and Australia-are exempt from the fingerprint requirements altogether. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials say those countries have adequate security procedures in place, but history proves that hostile parties can come from friendly nations. Zacarias Moussaoui, an alleged co-conspirator in the Sept. 11 plot, got into this country on a French passport. And Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber who attempted to bring down an Air France jet en route to Miami, was traveling with a British passport.

Still, TSA officials insist, the US-VISIT program has already proven its potential, even in limited tests. A dry run in Atlanta late last year nabbed 21 people on the FBI's watch list for crimes such as drug trafficking, rape, and visa fraud. And a Christmastime test in Miami and Fort Lauderdale turned up five visitors attempting to enter the country with false identities.

Given the high stakes-and the high tech-few visitors seemed overly offended by the extra step in the immigration procedure. "It's very quick. I think it's excellent," said Navneet Agarwal as he arrived in Washington from India. "You just have to put out your fingers and that's it."

Asif Latif, a Pakistani businessman who has traveled to the United States at least once a year for the past 30 years, said his trip through immigration was the longest he had ever experienced-but it wasn't because of the new technology. "The fingerprinting and photograph took only 30 seconds. The question-and-answer session was longer. It took about 10 minutes.... I know it's because I'm from Pakistan," he added. Still, he didn't blame immigration officials for the extra security. "It's no problem," he concluded.


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