- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2004

The Bush administration plans to pull the plug on a new border-security program requiring millions of visa-carrying Mexican nationals to be fingerprinted and photographed before being allowed to enter the United States, according to congressional and Bush administration sources.

Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, according to an advance copy of testimony he was scheduled to deliver yesterday before the House Government Reform Committee, had planned to tell the panel of a move to scrap the border checks for some Mexican nationals visiting the United States, but never mentioned the subject.

Instead, during questioning by Rep. John F. Tierney, Massachusetts Democrat, he acknowledged only that the matter was under consideration and that several options were available. He also said, without elaboration, that his preference would be to roll back security checks for some Mexican nationals.

The elimination of photographs and fingerprint checks for Mexican nationals who hold “laser visas” is viewed as a concession to Mexican President Vicente Fox, who is scheduled to visit with President Bush today and tomorrow at the president’s Crawford, Texas, ranch.

The laser visas were required of Mexican nationals as they entered the United States through ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexican border beginning in October 2002. They include a digital photograph and machine-readable biometric identifiers, such as fingerprints, of the cardholder.

Mr. Fox has objected that Mexican nationals were being fingerprinted and photographed while Canadian citizens were not.

In his advance text, Mr. Hutchinson, who heads border and transportation security for the Department of Homeland Security, said more than 104 million Mexican nationals hold laser visas, but they would not be required to be photographed or fingerprinted as outlined in a border-security program known as US-VISIT if they traveled less than 25 miles from the border and stayed no longer than three days.

Those visitors, the text said, would not be “enrolled in US-VISIT.”

Mexican nationals who intended longer trips and stays, according to the advance text, “will be processed using US-VISIT at the secondary inspection area just like other visitors traveling on a visa.”

In was not clear last night why Mr. Hutchinson changed his mind regarding his planned testimony. His spokesman, Dennis Murphy, did not return calls to his office for comment.

As part of the $367 million US-VISIT program, as mandated by Congress, the cards were designed to enhance the security of both U.S. residents and visitors to this country while expediting legitimate travel and trade by capturing more complete arrival and departure data for those who required a visa to enter the United States.

The new procedures were expected to add 15 seconds to the entry and exit process.

In January, Mr. Hutchinson called the program the answer to the country’s “critical need for tighter security” and to its commitment to “expedite travel for the millions of legitimate visitors we welcome each year to conduct business, learn, see family or tour the country.”

He said at the time the program represented “the greatest improvement in border inspection in more than three decades” and was a “shining example of what we can achieve when government works together.” He also called the laser cards a valuable aid to Customs and Border Protection agents in determining who could and should be admitted to the United States.

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

“It’s humiliating to be fingerprinted as if you were a criminal,” said one Mexico City television commentator, Leonardo Curzio, host of a program known as “Primer Plano,” or “Forefront.”

“No Mexicans have been linked to terrorism nor has there been the slightest suspicion,” he said.

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