Thursday, May 19, 2005

A program that collects biometric and biographic information from visa applicants and visitors to the United States has achieved “unprecedented results” in identifying criminals and other potential security threats seeking to enter America, Department of Homeland Security officials said yesterday.

“In the past, criminals and others who were the subject of lookouts needed only a new name to slip across our borders,” said Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia. But the US-VISIT program can “reveal the true identity underneath any alias” using fingerprints and other data.

In the 17 months since US-VISIT was created, more than 7,000 visas have been denied — more than a third of which were refused because the applicant was located on U.S. government law-enforcement and security lists. Comparable figures for denied visas were not kept prior to the program.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesman Dean Boyd said several recent US-VISIT cases included:

• The detention Sunday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspectors at Los Angeles International Airport of a Swiss national seeking admission as a visa waiver applicant. He was wanted by Interpol as a suspected pedophile.

• The May 8 arrest by ICE agents at the Lewiston, N.Y., port of entry of a Republic of Georgia native, wanted for murder in Germany. Living in Canada for years under an alias, he worked as a truck driver and frequently entered the United States. His fingerprint was matched by US-VISIT to a warrant after ICE agents received thousands of fingerprints in April on international fugitives from Interpol.

Created in January 2004 and administered by Homeland Security, US-VISIT allows CBP inspectors and ICE agents to determine whether a person applying for entry is the same person to whom State Department officials issued a visa, and also is checked against law-enforcement and terrorist watch lists.

The US-VISIT program also has enabled CBP inspectors at the nation’s sea, air and land ports to stop nearly 600 people seeking to enter the country with invalid visas, outstanding warrants or watch list notifications — more than one a day since the program began.

CBP Commissioner Robert C. Bonner has called US-VISIT a “top priority,” saying it “enhances security for our citizens and visitors while facilitating legitimate travel and trade across our borders.”

“US-VISIT is helping us demonstrate that we remain a welcoming nation and keep America’s doors open and our nation secure,” he said.

Mr. Boyd said enforcement results of US-VISIT show progress has been made since both the September 11 commission and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 stressed the need for improved information sharing and cooperation among law-enforcement and intelligence entities.

US-VISIT, which basically applies to all visitors with non-immigrant status regardless of country of origin, is in place at 115 airports, 15 seaports and at the 50 busiest land ports of entry. By Dec. 31, Mr. Boyd said, it will be implemented at all 250 remaining land ports of entry. To date, more than 25 million visitors have been processed through the program.

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