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Crackdown On Foreign Visitors

The Justice Department has chosen Sept. 11 as the starting date for a new program that will require tens of thousands of foreign visitors to be fingerprinted and photographed at the border, U.S. officials announced.

The security program, developed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, will begin at several unnamed ports of entry and will mostly affect those from Muslim and Middle Eastern countries.

After a 20-day testing period, all remaining ports of entry will implement the new system on Oct. 1, 2002, officials announced Monday.

The new policy doesn't come out of nowhere, points out Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen. It comes out of the USA Patriot Act last fall, when Congress gave the INS pretty specific directions to get tougher with entry guidelines.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said the program will correct some of the problems that led to the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The vulnerabilities of our immigration system became starkly clear on Sept. 11," Ashcroft said. "This system will expand substantially America's scrutiny of those foreign visitors who may present an elevated national security risk. And it will provide a vital line of defense in the war against terrorism."

Congress required the Justice Department develop a stricter entry-exit system in sweeping anti-terrorism legislation signed by President Bush late last year.

Under the new program, the fingerprints of many foreign visitors will be matched against a database of known criminals and a database of known terrorists.

The government says the security system will target:

  • All nationals of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria.
  • Nonimmigrant foreign nationals whom the State Department determines to present an elevated national security risk, based on criteria reflecting current intelligence.
  • Foreign nationals identified by INS inspectors at the port of entry, using similar criteria.
Some immigration advocates say the program is treating visitors unfairly.

"This is a fancy way of racial profiling," said Carl Baron, an immigration attorney and researcher at the University of Texas. "Just on the basis of where a person is from the government is going to subject them to these measures."

Cohen feels a test in the federal courts is inevitable, but whether it is racial profiling or not is another matter.

Someone will make that challenge, and the government will answer by saying it's a policy based on nations, not individuals, and in any event it's justified by what happened on Sept. 11.

"You're going to see fewer Middle Easterners willing to come to the United States and I wonder whether that isn't the real agenda," said Baron.

INS spokesman Bill Strassberger said the criticism was unfounded.

"The real agenda is to improve security in the United States and improve the knowledge of who is coming and what their business is here," Strassberger said. "The terrorists were able to exploit what they perceived as weaknesses. We can make sure that won't happen again."

During a pilot project using the same technology to identify wanted criminals attempting to re-enter the United States, the INS has received an average of about 70 fingerprint "hits" a week. The fingerprinting led to the arrest of more than 2,000 wanted felons between January and July.

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