Foreigners can soon expect to be electronically photographed and fingerprinted when entering the United States, under a high-tech new border security system.
“Through our virtual border, we will know who violates our entry requirements, who overstays and violates the terms of their stay and who should be welcome again,” said Asa Hutchinson, Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security.
Biometric identification of the 23 million tourists, students and business travelers who enter US territory using a visa will begin January 1, 2004, Hutchinson said at a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
The tracking system, called US Visitor and Immigrant Status Identification Technology (US VISIT), will alert officials if an individual has terrorist connections, past convictions or visa violations. Foreigners will be screened when entering and leaving the country.
“In 99.9 percent of the cases, the visitor will simply be wished a good day and sent on their way. But with that small percentage of hits, our country will be made much safer and our immigration system will be given a foundation of integrity that has been lacking for far too long,” said Hutchinson.
He emphasised that currently there is no way of knowing when a visitor leaves the country if indeed he or she does, but under US VISIT, that will change.
Standing before an image of the Statue of Liberty, Hutchinson said last week’s tragedy in which 18 Mexican and Central American immigrants died while being transported in the back of an unventilated trailer “reminds us (that) people still risk their lives for the freedom and opportunity that America offers.”
“But today we face new and unprecedented dangers. Some who cross our borders do not yearn to breathe free. They yearn to destroy freedom. They do not seek a better life, but an opportunity to weaken America and to take innocent lives,” he continued, alluding to the 19 hijackers responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
At least two of them could have been stopped if US VISIT had been in operation at that time, affirmed Hutchinson. One held a student visa but did not attend class and another had previous visa violations. He added that the new system is not designed to intimidate those coming to visit, work, or study in the US legally. “Good information does not threaten immigration … US VISIT will replace fear with knowledge,” he said.
Allotted 380 million dollars in the current fiscal budget, the program will be expanded to land border crossings in 2004 and eventually to every US consulate.
The United States will require its consulates to personally interview nearly all visa applicants, a measure that further complicates an already cumbersome process, said State Department officials last week.
Countries whose citizens do not need a visa to enter the United States will be urged to adopt biometric identification methods as soon as possible.
“We will not let visa waiver countries be a gap that terrorists can exploit,” said Hutchinson.
Laws passed after the September 11 terrorist strikes have strengthened US governmental authority to restrict immigration, drawing complaints from civil liberties groups.