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Foreign Visitors to U.S. Will Cross Digital Divide

Times Staff Writer

Adapting a concept that supermarkets have perfected, U.S. immigration authorities today will begin using a digital inventory control system to keep tabs on millions of foreign visitors who enter the country with visas.

Instead of bar codes and scanners that shopkeepers use to track cereal boxes, the government will take digital fingerprints and photos to register visitors as they arrive in the United States, and eventually to confirm their departure.

The system -- United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, or US-VISIT -- will be formally inaugurated today at 113 airports and 14 seaports. Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson is expected to oversee the launch at Los Angeles International Airport, a major gateway for travelers from Asia and South America.

The government calls US-VISIT the most significant immigration technology in decades, and promises it will add only seconds to the processing of arriving travelers. But some are concerned about potential loopholes, and the travel industry worries that the system will create added burdens for law-abiding visitors.

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Initially, US-VISIT will have significant gaps. It will register only arrivals, not departures. Technology to digitally record departures by air and sea is months away from deployment, according to optimistic estimates. Moreover, no system has been set up to digitally track either arrivals or departures by land, which account for the majority of border crossings.

That would mean that, at least for the rest of 2004, the government will be like a supermarket tracking merchandise and sales by simultaneously using bar codes and computers, as well as hand counts and paper inventory sheets.

“The exit control part is critically important for a coherent immigration system,” said Steven A. Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies. “It’s the exit part that’s always been the challenge.”

In addition to the technological questions, the travel industry and others fear that the program could lead to misunderstandings, a decline in tourism and delays at points of entry.

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Along the border with Mexico, business groups have warned that the application of US-VISIT could cripple commerce if not carried out carefully. The system is supposed to be phased in at the 50 largest vehicle and pedestrian crossings, such as the one between Tijuana and San Ysidro, by the end of 2004.

Federal officials say US-VISIT is overdue. Congress has been calling for such a system for nearly a decade. The government hopes that it will deter not only potential terrorists, but illegal immigrants as well.

“We are looking at two purposes: to increase security and to improve the integrity of immigration control,” Hutchinson, the Homeland Security undersecretary, said in an interview. “A key thing is that we will be able to know who is overstaying their visa and violating the terms of their admission to this country.”

With nearly 500 million border crossings a year -- many by visitors who come more than once a year -- the United States has one of the most open borders in the world.

The Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers initially entered legally. Balancing the imperative for tighter security in the face of terrorism with the need to provide access for foreigners traveling for business, tourism or family reasons is one of the biggest challenges for the State and Homeland Security departments.

“We don’t want there to be long delays for international travelers entering the United States,” said Rick Webster of the Travel Industry Assn., an umbrella group representing tourism and business travel interests. “If visitors have to wait several hours to get processed, we clearly will need to tell Homeland Security to go back to the drawing board.”

U.S. citizens and green card holders will not be subject to US-VISIT, and neither will people from 27 countries whose citizens are not required to have visas to travel to the United States. The Pacific Rim countries on this list include Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore. (A complete list, as well as more detailed information on US-VISIT, is available on the Internet at www.dhs.gov/us-visit.)

Initially, US-VISIT will affect only people traveling on visas who arrive at major air- and seaports. The government estimates that this category of international visitors accounts for about 24 million border crossings a year.

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Arriving visitors will proceed through the usual customs and immigration checks, with two additional steps. First, they will have two fingerprints -- the right and left index fingers -- scanned by an inkless device. Then, a digital photograph will be taken.

The information will be instantaneously compared with government security databases and watch lists. If there is no match to a suspicious or wanted person, the traveler will be allowed to proceed. If any alerts are raised by the database check, the traveler will have to step aside for further questions.

During 2003 trials of US-VISIT at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the system added an average of about 15 seconds to arrival processing, the government said.

The departure component of US-VISIT is supposed to take effect by the end of 2004. Visitors leaving the country will be required to have their fingerprints scanned at special kiosks.

Arrival and departure information would then be automatically reconciled, a big improvement over the current system that involves paper records. The government expects to dramatically reduce the number of foreigners who overstay their visas. Overstays account for about a third of the estimated 10 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Hutchinson said the travel industry should welcome the new system because of the added security it will provide. “We are working very hard to make sure that US-VISIT facilitates travel,” he said.

US-VISIT would also replace the domestic registration of visitors from mostly Middle Eastern and Muslim countries, which created diplomatic and civil rights controversies.

On the Mexican border, where US-VISIT is scheduled to be phased in at major crossings by the end of 2004, the exit portion of the system is creating anxiety. Currently, people leaving the United States at land crossings do not usually have to stop for American authorities.

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Border crossing points are not designed to accommodate exit checks, say critics.

“We are against any exit system that will slow down legitimate trade and travel,” said Garrick Taylor, director of policy development for the Border Trade Alliance, a Phoenix-based business group. “We are certainly supportive of the goals of US-VISIT -- it’s the implementation that’s got to go right.”

At the request of border-area groups, the government is considering a recommendation to exempt Mexican citizens who hold a U.S. border crossing card from US-VISIT.

Holders of the card, who generally have strong work-related or family ties in the United States, account for about 30% of all land crossings.

Hutchinson said no final decisions have been made on how the system will work at land crossings. “The last thing we want to do is develop a system that clogs the borders,” he said. “We have a commitment to make sure we do not implement this in a way that harms border communities.”


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