WASHINGTON -- Foreign visitors arriving with visas at U.S. airports or seaports next year will have their travel documents scanned, their fingerprints and photos taken and their identification checked against terrorist watch lists.
Such a tracking system could have stopped two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Homeland Security Department undersecretary Asa Hutchinson said Monday as he gave details of the department's new U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology, or U.S. VISIT.
The system, which goes into effect Jan. 1, will check the comings and goings of foreign travelers who arrive in this country carrying visas. Travelers with visas made up about 60 percent, or 23 million, of foreign visitors to the United States last year.
Hutchinson said such a system could have caught hijackers Mohammed Atta, who had overstayed his visa on a previous occasion, and Hani Hanjour, when he failed to show up at school as required by his student visa.
"Border security can no longer be just a coastline, or a line on the ground between two nations. It's also a line of information in a computer, telling us who is in this country, for how long and for what reason," Hutchinson said.
Congress has provided about $380 million for the new system, which will replace a paper-based system that been highly criticized since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Under the U.S. VISIT system, a visa carrier will be required to provide immigrant and citizenship status, nationality, country of residence and an address where the visitor will be staying in the United States.
"In 99.9 percent of the cases, the visitor will simply be wished a good day or sent on their way," Hutchinson said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. "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 too long."
When the visitor leaves, Hutchinson said, the system will verify the traveler's departure and identification.
All the hijackers traveled to the United States on visas; two were in the country illegally at the time of the attacks.
Americans and travelers not required to have visas to enter the United States will not be subject to the U.S. VISIT system.
The system will later be enhanced, possibly to include iris scans or facial recognition technology, Hutchinson said.
As part of U.S. VISIT, the department has created an Office of Compliance that will analyze all the information collected from visitors and refer cases requiring follow-up to investigators.
Hutchinson said some may argue the department is collecting too much information, which could intimidate visitors. "We're not here to play gotcha," he said.
Because border security sometimes comes down to on-the-spot decisions, Hutchinson said, "the more we are able to identify people and assess them based on their individual traits, the less dependent we are on broad, general categories such as national origin."
Immigration advocacy groups have been generally supportive of the U.S. VISIT program, which eliminates singling out certain groups. It will take the place of the domestic registration of males 16 and older from 25 Middle Eastern and other countries, who are not citizens.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, warned the system will take time to prove itself, because it will deal with a large volume of people.
"That begs the question of why are you continuing to admit so many people," said Krikorian, whose group supports curbing immigration.
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