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American Muslim

New York Times -  January 6, 2004

U.S. begins screening program for monitoring foreign visitors


MIAMI, Jan. 5 — United States immigration officers began fingerprinting and photographing tens of thousands of foreign visitors required to have visas on Monday (Jan. 5), in what federal authorities described as a sophisticated new security measure to monitor who enters the country and how long they stay.

A total of 115 airports with international flights, including several in Canada, Ireland and the Caribbean with United States customs booths, introduced the extra layer of screening on Monday, along with cruise ship terminals at 14 major seaports. Though the travel industry had feared significant delays as the program got under way, the Department of Homeland Security, which is administering it, said that the problems were minimal and that the procedure added perhaps a minute at most to immigration processing.

American officials said that they believed the fingerprinting program would strengthen border protection over the long haul, but that they did not expect it to have any immediate impact on the recent efforts to deter another terrorist attack since the country went to high alert.

At airports around the country Monday, some international visitors said the additional screening procedures were slowing down customs lines, as inspectors struggled with new digital fingerprint scanners and cameras on tripods.

Citizens of 27 countries, including Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and most European nations, are exempted from the program if they are visiting as tourists for fewer than 90 days.

But if citizens of those countries are traveling here on work or student visas, or for more than 90 days, they are subject to the new procedures. They, along with all residents of other countries — about 24 million travelers a year, including some repeat visitors, the Department of Homeland Security said — must be fingerprinted and photographed under the new rules.

Between 5:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday, 27,420 foreigners were fingerprinted and photographed under the new program, department officials said.

The American Civil Liberties Union said Monday that the new procedures would only increase confusion among immigrants who have been bewildered by the many security requirements adopted after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The new program is "a large privacy violation waiting to happen, with records garnered under the program likely retained even after you've become a citizen," said Timothy Edgar, a legislative counsel for the A.C.L.U.