Justice sets deadline for fingerprint matching

Starting Sept. 11, hundreds of foreign visitors who step off airplanes or arrive at U.S. border crossings will be directed to immigration inspectors, who will fingerprint and photograph them.

While inspectors collect information on the visitors' backgrounds and their reasons for coming to the United States, computers will be comparing their fingerprints to tens of thousands of prints collected from foreign felons, terrorists and suspected terrorists.

If there is a match, the visitors may be denied entry or arrested. If they are cleared for admission to the United States, their fingerprints and photographs will be added to a database for future identification purposes.

For those cleared, the whole process should take no more than 10 minutes, according to Kris Kobach, a Justice Department official involved in an aggressive effort to tighten immigration practices in the aftermath of last year's terrorist attacks.

Aside from the photos and fingerprints at ports of entry, the department will require foreign visitors to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service when they have been in the United States for 30 days and once a year thereafter.

That means foreign visitors must "appear in person at an INS field office" to answer questions about their activities in the United States and supply proof of where they are living, working or attending school, Justice officials said.

INS will require visitors to disclose much more information about themselves than they have in the past, Kobach said.

Finally, visiting foreigners will be required to register with INS when they leave the United States. Failure to register upon departure could make them ineligible for re-entry.

The fingerprinting, photographing and reporting requirements are intended to "expand substantially America's scrutiny of those foreign visitors who may present an elevated national security risk," Attorney General John Ashcroft said Aug. 12.

Initially, INS will target visitors from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria, as well as visitors from other countries who are identified by the State Department as being a risk to national security or who fit INS criteria for closer inspection.

But Ashcroft said he sees the system as the first step toward developing a comprehensive entry/exit system that will eventually be used to check almost all foreign visitors.

The plan is greeted with skepticism from some immigration experts.

"It's a false solution to a real problem," said Judy Golub, senior director of advocacy and public affairs for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Fingerprinting and photographing arriving foreigners is unlikely to catch many terrorists, but it is bound to cause major delays at ports of entry, she said. Most of the Sept. 11 terrorists had no prior records and were not included on watch lists.

Meanwhile, making foreign visitors report to the INS periodically while they're in the United States will catch no terrorists at all, Golub said. Those here to commit terrorism simply won't report in, she said.

More effective efforts include greater intelligence gathering and sharing among agencies, including the State Department, and "preinspection and preclearance" of foreign visitors at U.S. consulates overseas, she said.

But Justice officials said that fingerprinting and photographing people at ports of entry have already been proven to work.

Since January, INS inspectors have been using the technology at a number of ports of entry and have averaged more than 70 matches a week between the fingerprints of arriving foreigners and prints in databases of wanted felons. As a result, INS officials have made more than 2,000 arrests.

"It has been staggeringly good," Kobach said. n

Looking for a match The screening that begins Sept. 11 will include fingerprint comparisons against a database that contains prints collected in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including prints collected by U.S. forces at al Qaeda training camps. "We're very excited about that," said Kris Kobach, a Justice Department official involved in the effort. The Immigration and Naturalization Service may be able to link people to fingerprints that were almost certainly left by terrorists. Allies around the world have sent the U.S. digital fingerprints of suspected terrorists. Foreign visitors' prints will be checked against those and against prints in the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System and INS' IDENT database of more than 4.5 million foreign visitors' prints. Justice officials said up to 200,000 visiting foreigners a year will be fingerprinted and photographed. That's "a small percentage of the more than 35 million nonimmigrant aliens who enter the United States each year," Attorney General John Ashcroft said.

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