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Posted at 12:00 p.m., Monday, January 5, 2004

U.S. fingerprinting foreign passengers

By Suzanne Gamboa
Associated Press

WASHINGTON ó Foreigners entering U.S. airports and seaports from all but 28 nations began getting their fingerprints scanned and photographs taken today as part of a new program Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said will ensure that borders are secure in an era of terrorist threat.

Ridge was at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to meet with some of the first foreign passengers from Brazil and Chile to go through the new system. Other top federal officials also planned to be at airports across the nation to help draw attention to the new policy.

"We want to keep our borders open. We are a welcoming country," Ridge told NBCís "Today" show. "We want to secure the country as well. We want them to come to the United States to work and to visit and to study. We also need to make sure we have a record of who comes into the country and when they leave."

Peter Gonzalez, port director of the Department of Homeland Securityís border protection in Hawai'i, said screening of incoming passengers from foreign countries excluding Japan began today at Honolulu International Airport. "Their fingerprints and photographs were taken and the entire process took 10 seconds," Gonzalez said.

A self-service kiosk has been set up to close-out records of departing foreign passengers who were screened upon arrival, said Gonsalez.

On CBSís "The Early Show," Ridge revealed that during a pilot program that preceded implementation today of a nationwide system of such checks, authorities turned up nearly two-dozen people, including some with records as felons, and deported them.

"If you are a nonimmigrant alien," he said, "we would like to identify you through a digital fingerprint and a photo scan."

All 115 U.S. airports that handle international flights and 14 major seaports are covered by the program, under which Customs officials can instantly check an immigrant or visitorís criminal background.

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

The only exceptions will be visitors from 28 countries ó mostly European nations whose citizens are allowed to come to the United States for up to 90 days without visas.

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

Homeland Security spokes-man Bill Strassberger said that once screeners become proficient, the extra security will take only 10 to 15 seconds per person. Foreign travelers also will continue to pass through regular Customs points and answer questions.

Photographs will be used to help create a database for law enforcement. The travel data is supposed to be securely stored and made available only to authorized officials on a need-to-know basis.

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

Brazilian police started fingerprinting and photographing Americans arriving at Sao Pauloís airport last week in response to the new U.S. regulations.

Brazilís Foreign Ministry has requested that Brazilians be removed from the U.S. list.

The U.S. system consists of a small box that digitally scans fingerprints and a spherical computer camera that snaps pictures. It will be used for foreign nationals traveling on tourist, business and student visas who enter through an airport or seaport.

The new system will gradually phase out a paper-based system that Congress mandated be modernized after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

A person whose fingerprints or photos raise questions would not be turned away automatically. The visa holder would be sent to secondary inspection for further questions and checks. Officials have said false hits on the system have been less than 0.1 percent in trial runs.