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Mexicans Getting Break At Border

Millions of visa-carrying Mexicans who make short visits to the United States and stay close to the border won't have to be fingerprinted and photographed to get into the country.

Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security department's undersecretary for border and transportation, was to publicly announce the policy change at a congressional hearing Thursday, a congressional official who was briefed on the plan told The Associated Press.

The move, a concession to Mexican President Vicente Fox, come on the eve of his visit to President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

As part of the US-VISIT program started in January, foreigners from certain countries traveling on visas and entering at 115 major airports and 14 seaports are fingerprinted and photographed. The system was developed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to ensure people on terrorism watch lists and other criminals don't get into the country.

The program will be added to the 50 busiest land ports later this year.
Prior to Thursday's announcement, the program exempted visitors from 27 countries — mostly European nations — whose citizens are allowed to come to the United States for up to 90 days without visas.

Fox was upset that under the expanded plan Mexicans would be photographed and fingerprinted before entering the United States, while Canadians would not.

Mexican border officials and officials in U.S. border communities feared the program could lead to long delays or prompt fewer people to enter the country. Either scenario would hurt local economies that rely on a steady flow of visitors.

Under the plan outlined by the congressional official, Mexicans who have so-called laser visas won't be fingerprinted and photographed provided they stay in the United States no more than three days and remain close to the border.

As part of the plan, the government will install machines that can read the electronic information in the laser visas at the 50 busiest land ports. The machines are at only a handful of border points of now. A program to log foreigners' departures also is being developed.

The fingerprinting of arriving travelers is one of several new Bush administration security policies that have irked foreigners.

The grounding or barring of several flights over the holidays was seen as over the top by some.

An order to station armed sky marshals on certain flights to the United States has been refused by a handful of governments.

In retaliation for the U.S. fingerprinting policy, which began in January, Brazil's Foreign Ministry started fingerprinting and photographing arriving Americans.

Nearly 360 million travelers entered the United States at all U.S. land ports of entry in 2002.

The Bush administration is trying to improve relations with Fox's government, which feels sidelined by the war on terrorism.

In January, Mr. Bush outlined an immigration policy to allow immigrants who have the promise of a job a temporary visa into the country.

That program was seen as a nod to Mexico and the Hispanic-American voters.