- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

A senior Homeland Security official yesterday defended the new U.S. biometric border identification scheme, seeking to calm those in commerce and travel who fear that the system will clog the borders, gum up the visa process and create an image abroad of “fortress America.”

“They wouldn’t be doing their job if they weren’t concerned,” Stewart Verdery, assistant secretary in the Border and Transportation Security Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security, said of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups who have expressed doubts about the implementation of the system.

The system, known as U.S.-VISIT, requires visa holders to be digitally photographed and fingerprinted at ports of entry and to be checked against watch lists of terrorists and other criminals.

It was rolled out at the nation’s airports and large seaports Jan. 5. By the end of the year, the system is scheduled to be in place at the 50 busiest land crossings as well — the stage that is keeping businesses, the travel industry and many lawmakers awake at night.

Four times as many visitors pass immigration inspection at land borders as at seaports and airports, and according to the Chamber of Commerce, “any additional time for inspection at primary booths can have dramatic results in delays at the borders.”

But Mr. Verdery told an audience at the Heritage Foundation in Washington that “the last thing we want to do is increase wait times.”

He added that U.S.-VISIT had “worked pretty well” at airports and seaports, “despite all ‘the sky is going to fall’ predictions.”

The key, he said, was new technology, in the shape of smart cards with radio frequency identity capacity. Such cards could send information about the holder, such as a photograph or a car license plate number, to a screen in the immigration inspector’s booth as the holder drives up, enabling any checks to be done without the holder having to get out of the vehicle.

“If you had told people 20 years ago” about supermarket scanners and their ability to check the price and include discounts from coupons or loyalty cards, “they’d have said, ‘You can’t do that. That’s impossible. That would be too expensive,’” he said.

“We’re looking for a similar technological revolution at our land borders.”

In a letter to the department earlier this month, the chamber said the volume of trade and commuter traffic at land crossings means that any delays there have “vastly more potential for severe economic impact as commercial trade is bogged down, and other resulting problems, including environmental quality and disruption of the economic links between the United States and its neighboring nations.”

Kathleen Campbell Walker of the American Immigration Lawyers Association said at a recent congressional hearing that unlike at airports, no opportunity exists at land crossings to separate those with visas from those who do not require them, such as U.S. or Canadian citizens or green-card holders.

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