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US Officials Say Progress Made in Visitor Fingerprint Program, but Critics Cite Problems
Christine Elliott
VOA, Washington
04 Mar 2004, 23:48 UTC


<b>Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge observing new security measure at airport</b><br>File photo
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge observing new security measure at airport
File photo
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says its new entry and exit program has already helped make America safer. The program nevertheless has its share of critics and even its supports say more work must be done to ensure its success.

The two-month-old U.S. VISIT program requires photographing and fingerprinting almost all foreign visitors who require a visa to enter the United States. The government says one of its aims is to make U.S. citizens and visitors more secure.

Speaking at a forum at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, C. Stewart Verdery from the Department of Homeland Security, said 1.8 million people have already been processed at U.S. airports through the program. And he said by examining characteristics unique to each human, a technique known as biometrics, the program has already pinpointed some convicted drug traffickers, rapists and escapees from federal prison.

"We have had over 150 watch list hits, and these are people who are caught solely due to the biometric... These are people that would have been admitted except for the finger scan that caught them," he said.

Mr. Verdery acknowledged, though, that the new program has not caught a known terrorist trying to enter the country. This and other factors have led to criticism of the venture.

Although the program is wide-reaching, there are 27 countries, mostly in Europe, that are exempted through a visa waiver program.

The issue is further complicated because although almost all current European Union members are exempted, only one of the bloc's new member countries, Slovenia, is part of the waiver program. That means that come May 1, when the new members are formally admitted to the EU, there will be several eastern European countries that are EU members, but will face immigration scrutiny that their fellow members do not.

A former deputy minister of Poland, Radek Sikorski, says the situation is a paradox. He says new EU member countries, which have not produced a single terrorism suspect, must have visas to come to the United States and are subjected to the humiliating treatment of being fingerprinted and photographed. But, he adds "...that citizens of countries where there are large Islamic communities - that is to say the citizens of Britain, France and Germany - come to this country right now without visas, and without being fingerprinted or photographed. That simply does not make sense and is causing a sense of unfairness in those countries."

The European Commission's Director-General of Justice and Home Affairs, Jonathan Faull, says he sympathizes with critics' complaints that the situation is hard to understand. But he says the European Union is a work in progress. Discussion and outreach, he adds, are key.

"What is important in all of these areas is again, things should be properly explained," he said. "That we are not differentiating and discriminating for the sake of it, for the hell of it, but because certain things still remain to be assessed, examined and finally set in place."

Mr. Faull says the European Commission is working with the United States to make sure both the U.S. and EU borders are secure.

Mr. Verdery of the Department of Homeland Security agrees. He says the U.S. VISIT program has a long way to go, and sorting out how to handle the visa waiver countries is one of the main issues about the program that must be addressed quickly.