- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

A border-security program requiring millions of foreign nationals holding so-called “laser visas” with digital photographs and biometric identifiers is a top Department of Homeland Security priority and will be expanded this year from 119 airports and seaports to an additional 50 of the country’s busiest land ports of entry, department officials said.

The program, known as US-VISIT, is designed to enhance security while allowing legitimate travel and trade across America’s borders, giving U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspectors the ability to determine whether a person seeking entry is the same person who was issued the visa by the State Department.

Additionally, department officials said, the biometric and biographic data are tagged instantly to federal watch lists, to guard against the entry of terrorists to the United States.

Expansion of the program to the country’s 50 busiest land ports, which process more than 90 percent of the foreign visitors who enter and leave the United States, is expected to be completed by the end of the year and to all 300 ports of entry by Dec. 31, 2005.

The process of checking the laser visas takes between 10 and 15 seconds, and affects about 28 million visitors to the United States annually.

“US-VISIT will help Homeland Security professionals focus our people and technology on the greatest risks … improving our ability to keep our borders open, planes flying and people safe,” Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in announcing the program. “Our hearts ache for the victims of the 9/11 attacks. We cannot turn back time. But we can unmask terrorists today — and prevent their attacks from succeeding tomorrow.”

The $367 million program, formally known as United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, uses biometric identifiers such as fingerprints and photographs at primary inspection stations using an inkless fingerprint scanner and digital camera to verify the identities of foreign nationals. It provides access to previously unavailable databases to help inspectors more accurately determine the admissibility of those who want to enter the country.

US-VISIT became effective Jan. 5 at 115 airports and 14 seaports, after completion of a successful pilot program at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta.

Citizens from 28 countries initially were exempt from the US-VISIT program, those who could enter the United States without a visa, traveling on passports for business or pleasure for up to 90 days.

Last week, President Bush acceded to the demands of Mexican President Vicente Fox and halted the use of US-VISIT to fingerprint and photograph documented Mexican nationals entering the United States across the southern border for visits of less than 72 hours.

Millions of Mexican nationals, including about 170,000 a day in San Diego alone, cross into the United States each year to shop or visit relatives. Most of the 8 million to 12 million illegal aliens in the United States are believed to be Mexican nationals.

The laser visas had been required of Mexican nationals entering the United States through land ports since October 2002, although Mr. Fox vigorously objected that they were being fingerprinted and photographed while Canadian citizens were not.

The decision to allow millions of Mexican nationals to enter the United States without being cross-checked through US-VISIT drew immediate criticism, including from the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which said it would allow “dangerous criminals and those with terrorist connections” to enter the country undetected.

“We know terrorists have tried to enter the United States using documents of visa waiver countries and Canada,” FAIR Executive Director Dan Stein said. “There is no justification for compromising America’s security by punching loopholes in the screening system designed to enhance our security.”

The US-VISIT program had spawned anti-American sentiments among many Mexicans, who said their country was being targeted unfairly in the war on terrorism. Within a week of its enactment, Mexican newspapers carried headlines attacking the plan, including one that said, “Humiliated.”

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