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American Muslim

Washington Post - December 22, 2003

Airports to start tracking foreigners


DALLAS - Major U.S. airports and seaports are preparing to begin using fingerprints and photographs to keep track of when foreigners enter the country and when they leave.

The program, to be up and running on Jan. 5 at all 115 airports that handle international flights, will let Customs officials instantly check an immigrant or visitor's criminal background.

"I think people have come to understand that an increase to security is necessary," said U.S. Homeland Security spokesman Bill Strassberger.

At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, between 1,000 to 2,000 passengers will be fingerprinted and photographed each day. Security officials are setting up equipment, training personnel and asking for volunteers to test the program.

The program, called US-VISIT, or U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, will check an estimated 24 million foreigners each year, though some will be repeat visitors.

Inkless fingerprints will be taken and checked instantly against a national database for criminal backgrounds and any terrorist lists, Strassberger said. The process will be repeated when the foreigners leave the country as an extra security measure and to ensure they complied with visa limitations.

Strassberger said once screeners become proficient, the extra security will take only 10 to 15 seconds per person. Foreign travelers will also continue to pass through Customs points and answer questions.

Photographs will be used to help create a database for law enforcement.

The program will also be in place at 14 seaports where international ships dock.

Every foreigner with a visa will be fingerprinted and photographed when they enter the country. But those from 28 countries can avoid the scrutiny. Citizens from these countries - many of them in Europe - are allowed to come to the United States for up to 90 days without a visa.

A similar program is to be installed at 50 land border crossings by the end of next year, Strassberger said.

In 1996, the government required that customs and immigrations officials develop a system for tracking entry and exit of immigrants, Strassberger said. Urgency to develop the system increased after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said.  (The Associated Press)