U.S. steps up scrutiny of visitors coming into nation's airports

Fingerprints, photographs part of a stricter approach to domestic security

Strategies

October 10, 2004|By Rachel L. Swarns | Rachel L. Swarns,New York Times News Service

Tougher entry requirements for visitors to the United States are making sweeping changes in the way visitors from Europe, Japan, Australia and other industrialized nations are being received at American airports.

Starting late last month, travelers from 27 nations -- including Britain, Germany and Japan, which are the three biggest sources of overseas visitors to the United States -- were to be photographed and fingerprinted for the first time at American airports. On Oct. 26, passengers from 21 countries, most of them in Europe, will have to carry machine-readable passports to visit this country without visas.

The stricter requirements are part of efforts to improve national security. The government began fingerprinting and photographing visa-carrying travelers in January. But this is the first time that visitors from industrialized countries who do not typically require visas to visit for no more than 90 days will be required to provide digital fingerprints and photographs. The new measures will determine whether they match computerized watch lists for suspected terrorists, criminals and violators of American immigration law.

In 2003, about 12 million of the 18 million overseas visitors to the United States came from the 27 nations, most of them European, that will now be required to participate in the fingerprinting program, according to the Travel Industry Association of America, which represents the nation's largest airlines, hotels, cruise lines and car rental companies.

Hoping to allay concerns and avoid confusion among these travelers, the Department of Homeland Security plans to start running advertisements about the fingerprinting and photographing program this month in several newspapers overseas. The program is known as U.S. Visit.

The State Department also sent out a cable last month to U.S. consulates and embassies around the world, encouraging them to increase efforts to inform travelers in 21 industrialized nations that they need to have machine-readable passports in hand by Oct. 26. Otherwise, they will have to apply for visas.

Homeland Security officials emphasize that the fingerprinting and photographing is quick -- typically no more than 15 seconds -- and easy; the fingerprints are taken digitally, leaving fingers clean.

"One of our highest priorities is to make sure the United States continues to be a welcoming nation and that travelers continue to come to the United States," said Anna Hinken, the outreach manager for U.S. Visit. "We believe those goals are entirely compatible with ensuring security for both travelers and visitors.

Many European travelers are bracing for the new rules with a mixture of foreboding, confusion and resignation -- while others remain unaware of the changes.

"There is a bit of nervousness, especially with the fingerprints," said Simona Camerini of European Incoming Services, a travel agency in Rome, who has had to advise her clients of the changes. "They feel like they are being checked up on, and as a consequence, they get nervous." But when her clients realize that this is now a normal procedure in American airports, "it's not too traumatic."

Chris Keats, a 59-year-old office administrator in London, was a little more cautious. "I wouldn't really mind being photographed or fingerprinted, but worry that the system might be open to abuse," she said. "What happens if someone crooked in the U.S. system logs my fingerprints alongside a photograph of someone else?"

Travel industry officials fear that there may be more confusion about the deadline for machine-readable passports, a requirement that they believe has not been as well publicized as the U.S. Visit program. Rick Webster, director of governmental relations for the Travel Industry Association, said some passport holders in Spain, Italy, France and Switzerland still lack the new version, which can be read by a computer to check biographical information against watch lists.

Angela Aggeler, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, said officials anticipate that some travelers may arrive in the United States after Oct. 26 without either the new passports or the visas required otherwise. She could not say precisely how many passport-holders from the 21 countries have not been issued the new passports, but said that about 30 percent of French travelers still don't have them. She said immigration officers at airports would have the discretion to allow those travelers a one-time waiver to enter the United States.

But she warned that the waiver is not guaranteed and that some passengers might be sent home and told to apply for visas before returning.

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