Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge scheduled an appearance Monday at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Other top federal officials also planned to be at airports across the nation to help draw attention to the new policy.
All 115 U.S. airports that handle international flights and 14 major seaports are covered by the program, under which Customs officials can instantly check an immigrant or visitor's criminal background.
Called US-VISIT, or U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, the program will check an estimated 24 million foreigners each year, though some will be repeat visitors.
The only exceptions will be visitors from 28 countries — mostly European nations whose citizens are allowed to come to the United States for up to 90 days without visas.
"We want people coming to this country to work and study and to visit," Ridge told the CBS News Early Show. "But if you are a non-immigrant alien, if you are coming in for this purpose, we would like to identify you through a digital fingerprint and photo so we have an accurate record of who comes in and who leaves."
Inkless fingerprints will be taken and checked instantly against a national digital database for criminal backgrounds and any terrorist lists. The process will be repeated when the foreigners leave the country as an extra security measure and to ensure they complied with visa limitations.
Homeland Security spokesman Bill Strassberger said that once screeners become proficient, the extra security will take only 10 to 15 seconds per person. Foreign travelers also will continue to pass through regular Customs points and answer questions.
Photographs will be used to help create a database for law enforcement. The travel data is supposed to be securely stored and made available only to authorized officials on a need-to-know basis.
A similar program is to be installed at 50 land border crossings by the end of next year, Strassberger said.
"If I were a terrorist and wanted to attack western interests and knew I was gong to be fingerprinted entering the United States, frankly, I would go somewhere else," said Randy Larsen, a CBS News security consultant.
But while experts have said the system is a good idea, the match-up won't work if the suspected terrorist has never been fingerprinted or photographed, reports CBS News Correspondent Joie Chen.
"It is the needle-in-the-haystack challenge. It's trying to find within this tremendous number of people, the few potential 'harmdoers,'" said Deborah Meyers of the Migration Policy Institute.
The new U.S. program comes amid a high terror alert during which increased security has been focused on a possible threat to foreign aircraft entering the United States. Several planes have been grounded, escorted by military jets or searched upon landing.
Reports indicate that that names of passengers on these flights may have touched off the intensified security because they appeared to match entries on a terrorist database.
Some foreign governments have accused the United States of crying wolf with its alerts about incoming flights. For some, that resentment has carried over to the new registration system.
Brazilian police started fingerprinting and photographing Americans arriving at Sao Paulo's airport last week in response to the new U.S. regulations.
Brazil's Foreign Ministry has requested that Brazilians be removed from the U.S. list.
"At first, most of the Americans were angered at having to go through all this, but they were usually more understanding once they learned that Brazilians are subjected to the same treatment in the U.S.," Wagner Castilho, press officer for the federal police in Sao Paulo, said of those arriving at Sao Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport last Thursday.
The U.S. system consists of a small box that digitally scans fingerprints and a spherical computer camera that snaps pictures. It will be used for foreign nationals traveling on tourist, business and student visas who enter through an airport or seaport.
The new system will gradually phase out a paper-based system that Congress mandated be modernized following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
That program, the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System, registered 93,750 people at ports of entry. It applied to nationals from 25 counties, only one of which — North Korea — was not a mostly Muslim country.
A more controversial phase of that earlier program required men from those countries who were already in the United States to register at federal immigration offices. Critics said this led to the detention of law-abiding foreigners who had applied for visa extensions.
According to the Justice Department, 2,800 people were detained under the program.
Under the new program, a person whose fingerprints or photos raise questions would not be turned away automatically. The visa holder would be sent to secondary inspection for further questions and checks. Officials have said false hits on the system have been less than 0.1 percent in trial runs.
A 2000 law called for such a system at U.S. ports of entry, but in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks the USA PATRIOT Act called for it to be expedited.
The system was scheduled to begin operation New Year's Day but was delayed to avoid the busy holiday travel period.
According to Ridge, a pilot US-VISIT program at the Hartsfield-Jackson airport has already led to 21 arrests, some of people who had been deported and were trying to reenter the country.
Congress provided $368 million to produce the system and put it in airports, but only provided $330 million of the $400 million President Bush requested to put the system in land borders in 2004.
The countries subject to a visa waiver are: Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.