WASHINGTON – Beginning Jan. 5,visitors to the United States will have their index fingerprints scanned and their pictures taken in addition to having their passports and visas reviewed,the Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday.
The US-VISIT program will give the United States “the most dramatic step forward in increasing security in the modern history of immigration,” said Asa Hutchinson,under secretary for border and transportation.
Hutchinson said it will “provide greater integrity to our immigration and visitors system. This gives us the capability to know those who would overstay a visa or violate the term of their visa.”
“We want to continue to welcome our international students,our business travelers and our tourist travelers,” said Hutchinson,who said the procedures will not adversely affect legitimate travelers or lengthen airport lines.
At a press conference,a Washington Dulles International Airport Customs and Border Protection officer and two customs employees who posed as travelers demonstrated that the new procedures take about five seconds.
The system is “effective,simple,fast and respectful,” said James Williams,director of the US-VISIT program.
Williams said the agency expects less than 1 percent negative hits — mismatches between fingerprints and documents. He said that when this happens,agents will ask travelers additional questions.
Many of the procedures in place today will remain unchanged. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer will scan the visitor's visa,review the passport and ask questions about the visitor's stay in the United States.
But beginning in January,officers will also use an inkless fingerprint scanner to read index fingerprints and will take a digital photograph of arriving visitors who have visas.
The biographic and fingerprint data will be used to verify the identity of the visitor and compare it to a watch list,according to the Homeland Security Department printed background information. At that point,the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer will either admit the visitor or conduct the additional inquiries.
These procedures should reduce fraud,identity theft and the risk that terrorists and criminals will enter the United States undetected,officials said.
When international visitors leave the country,they will check out at a self-service kiosk located within the secure area of major international airports and seaports,officials said. Visitors’ fingerprints and other data will be compared to their arrival information.
The exit program will begin at 30 airports next year and expand to others later. The entrance program will begin at 115 airports and 14 seaports.
Residents of the European Union,Australia,Japan and other countries who are not required to have visas to enter the United States will have to comply with the US-VISIT procedures beginning in October 2004.
Although the government says the data it collects will be protected by the Privacy Act,it will be shared with several federal agencies and federal,state and local law enforcement personnel,according to the department’s press release.
Officials said the program will be ready Jan. 1,but airlines asked that it not go into effect until the holiday travel season ends.
The US-VISIT program received $380 million for fiscal 2003 and $330 million for fiscal 2004.
Hutchinson said he does not believe that the US-VISIT program will increase visa fees.