Welcome to America

"Welcome to America" Continued...

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

Indeed, there were remarkably few problems with the fingerprinting procedures nationwide, despite dire warnings of long delays as Immigration and Naturalization Service processors learned to use the machines. Most visitors stood in line for no more than an extra minute, and Mr. Ridge vowed the wait time would shrink to 15 or 20 seconds once personnel had gotten a few days' practice.

But if tourists seemed generally pleased with the efficiency of the procedure, not all foreign governments were quite so upbeat. A Brazilian federal judge, furious over the new fingerprinting requirement, ordered that American visitors landing in his country be subjected to the same treatment starting on Jan. 1-but without the high-tech conveniences. Manual fingerprinting with black ink caused delays of more than nine hours at Rio de Janeiro's international airport.

The mayor of Rio, worried about the impact on his city's vital tourism sector, said he would sue for an end to the fingerprinting policy. "It is the country that loses because of this infantile anti-American policy," Mayor Cesar Maia told reporters.

The U.S. State Department agreed. Spokesman Richard Boucher complained that the policy was "quickly instituted [and] not well prepared. We have told the Brazilians that we think that these are measures that provide tremendous inconvenience to travelers and that they need to be changed."

In a world of heightened terror alerts, however, inconvenience seemed to become the norm for international travel. Terrorist "chatter" picked up by U.S. intelligence sources led to increased security for inbound flights from Mexico, France, and Great Britain. Even after the high-risk holiday season passed without incident, officials continued their scrutiny, leading to long delays and canceled flights.

Take the plight of British Airways Flight 223, for example. On Jan. 6 it was delayed two hours because of security screening. The previous three days saw delays of 3-1/2 hours. For two days before that, it was canceled entirely, and on Dec. 31-almost a week earlier-the flight was escorted into Washington's Dulles International Airport by U.S. fighter jets.

Although flights operated by British Airways, Air France, and AeroMexico came under perhaps the closest scrutiny, U.S.-based carriers were hardly immune. A Cincinnati-bound Delta Airlines flight was delayed in Paris on Jan. 6 when screeners discovered suspicious wires in a passenger's coat. The 22-year-old Saudi woman was removed from the flight and her coat checked by a bomb team, which concluded the wires were merely part of a heating system similar to an electric blanket.

Even without the suspect coat, the Delta flight was quarantined behind a barbed-wire fence about a half-mile from the main airport terminal upon its arrival in Cincinnati. Bomb-sniffing dogs searched the plane, and all 181 passengers, along with their luggage, were screened a second time before they were allowed to leave the aircraft.

TSA officials warn there's no end in sight to the increased security. Despite scattered criticism, the fingerprinting policy is here to stay, and heightened screening procedures for U.S.-bound flights will likely continue even after the general threat level is lowered from orange to yellow.

Later this year, officials promise, fingerprinting will be implemented at land border crossings, and electronic passport controls coming in October should help to close loopholes for European visitors. Furthermore, automated departure kiosks now being tested in Baltimore and Fort Lauderdale will signal the INS when a visitor has overstayed his or her visa, adding yet another layer of protection.

Meantime, the criticism-and the inconveniences-will continue. To that U.S. officials respond simply: It beats the alternative.

-with reporting from Priya Abraham

in Washington


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