Fingerprinting foreigners

September 27, 2002

THE BUSH administration's plan to fingerprint certain foreigners entering the United States is the newest addition to a play-it-safe menu of methods for identifying suspected terrorists.

The problem is that the fingerprint information may only become useful or relevant after an incident has occurred. And in the meantime, foreign nationals and others will be singled out at the borders, raising concerns about the message we are sending about our regard for citizens of other nations.

The policy, which began on the anniversary of Sept. 11 at selected and undisclosed sites, is the U.S. Department of Justice's response to a congressional mandate to devise a "national security entry-exit registration system." The fingerprinting won't necessarily keep someone from entering the country. At best, it might -- and the operative word here is might --- make it easier to track down or arrest a suspected terrorist later.

But wouldn't it make sense to do all of this before the foreign tourist with the visa is standing at the airport gate? That's not how the system is designed. Officials say other methods, including intelligence data, are being used to screen visa applicants.

Meanwhile, students, business visitors and tourists from the usual suspect countries -- Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya -- will be the first to be fingerprinted and photographed when they enter the United States. (Last year, they numbered about 44,000.)

But others will be stopped too, singled out by immigration inspectors relying on highly specific criteria based on intelligence reports that, of course, can't be disclosed.

A check for any outstanding visa or criminal problems will be made. If cleared for entry, the foreigner will have to report to an INS office in 30 days and again after 12 months. If they don't (because after all, would a terrorist really check in?) it's unlikely anyone will go looking for them.

Their prints and photo would be placed in a national criminal database and red-flagged for any police officer who happens on the would-be terrorist. But if the suspect tourist steers clear of the law, he won't have any problems.

That's the policy that will be in effect Oct. 1 at some 300 ports of entry. Do you feel safer now? Are you convinced that this system would have resulted in the arrest of Mohamed Atta or any of the other 9/11 terrorists before they carried out their evil plan?

This is just one of several rules instituted since Sept. 11 to better screen visitors to the United States.

But the question remains: Will these measures enable the government to avert terrorist acts, or do they only make us feel better knowing the government is doing something? Unfortunately, no one is likely to have the answers anytime soon.

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