Digital inventory of foreign visitors begins

System takes fingerprints, photos of travelers to U.S.

January 05, 2004|By Tim Barker | Tim Barker,ORLANDO SENTINEL

Hoping to make it tougher for terrorists to get into the country, the Department of Homeland Security launches a program today that collects fingerprints and photographs of many international travelers.

The initiative will use these so-called biometric identifiers to track the comings and goings of visitors from countries where visas are required to travel to the United States. It will be used at 115 airports.

One of the primary goals, said Homeland Security spokeswoman Kimberly Weissman, is to "have greater accountability of when someone arrives in the United States and when they leave."

The system - U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology, or U.S. Visit - also will allow authorities to compare traveler information against databases of known or suspected terrorists.

And at least for now, Homeland Security officials appear to have satisfied the concerns of a travel industry once worried about the potential impact on international visitation to this country.

In July, the Travel Industry Association of America warned that the new measures would further weaken the industry, which has struggled to recover from recession and the impact of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The association estimates that international travelers contribute nearly $90 billion a year to the national economy.

Passengers will be photographed and fingerprinted while they are standing in line at U.S. Customs, where they are queried about the reasons for their journeys. Because of that, officials aren't expecting significant delays at airports.

Testing of the U.S. Visit program in Atlanta has shown that the photo and fingerprint collection add very little time to a visitor's path through customs. "Only seconds in most cases," Weissman said.

There are those, however, who don't think the program goes far enough. David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, would like it to include all international travelers to the United States.

As it stands, visitors from the 27 countries in the visa-waiver program - including the United Kingdom, Japan and many European countries - are not required to obtain a visa to enter this country. Calling it a good first step, Stempler said he would like to see the U.S. Visit program expanded to eliminate that loophole.

In October, travelers from those countries will be required to have computer-readable passports with photos.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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