- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2006

Homeland Security Department officials said they have not abandoned the idea of biometrically verifying the identities of foreigners leaving the United States by land, but acknowledge that it is at the bottom of a long to-do list of border security measures.

A report last week from the Government Accountability Office said officials had concluded that “for various reasons, a biometric-exit capability cannot now be implemented without incurring a major impact on land port-of-entry facilities.”

The exit capability for U.S.-VISIT, the system that uses fingerprints to confirm the identities of foreign visitors, is a congressional mandate, although the law provides no deadline. A report on its implementation is overdue and is expected to be presented to Congress next month.

Officials say their priority for U.S.-VISIT is to prevent potential terrorists from entering the country, rather than to confirm that legitimate visitors have left on time or to track down illegal aliens and others who overstay deliberately.

“There’s a common-sense reason for that,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. “Ask yourself what’s more important: keeping a terrorist out in the first place or having a terrorist come in and finding out that he hasn’t left after 90 days?”

Considering that the September 11 hijackers, several of whom had overstayed their visas, “left by committing suicide, it seemed pretty obvious to us the first priority is keep them out in the first place,” Mr. Chertoff said.

In line with that priority, officials say, the first order of business for upgrading U.S.-VISIT is to increase the number of fingerprints used from two to 10.

Almost all foreigners arriving by air or sea who are not legal permanent residents, and most non-Canadians arriving at land ports of entry, are checked by U.S.-VISIT.

Visa holders are enrolled in the system when they apply at U.S. embassies. Other visitors, such as those from the 27 nations who can enter for 90 days without a visa, are enrolled the first time they arrive in the United States.

Thereafter, their fingerprints are used to confirm a match with the visa, or that they have been allowed entry without a visa.

Use of all 10 prints would provide greater opportunity to interdict those whose U.S.-VISIT fingerprints match latent prints collected from safe houses, bomb fragments and other places where terrorists have left a mark, Mr. Chertoff has said.

Homeland Security Department officials say the entry portion of U.S.-VISIT has caught dozens of criminals and other immigration violators, though they have not been able to point to a definite apprehension or interdiction of a terrorist.

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