WASHINGTON – Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a new alien registration system that aims to keep an eye on the comings and goings of foreign tourists, business travelers, students and temporary workers traveling through the United States.
"We are an open country. We welcome people from around the world to visit a land which we believe is a blessed land. We will continue to greet our international neighbors with goodwill. Asking some neighbors and visitors to verify their activities while they are here is fully consistent with that outlook," Ashcroft told reporters Wednesday.
The National Security Entry/Exit Registration System, based on an alien registration model that was implemented during World War II, will require foreigners to have their fingerprints and photographs taken upon arrival at U.S. borders. Ashcroft said foreigners re-entering at the borders will have a fingerprint scan when they arrive to compare to database lists of suspicious characters, a process that should take no more than three minutes per guest.
Visitors "of elevated national security concern" who stay longer than 30 days will be required to check in at Immigration and Naturalization Service offices to update their activities, Ashcroft said. Those that do not appear will be tracked down through law enforcement units at all levels.
The rule is a response to a congressional mandate that the Justice Department build an entry/exit system for all foreign visitors.
The new rule, a response to lax immigration rules that allowed most of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers to enter the United States legally, would mostly affect visitors from Muslim and Middle Eastern countries, and from countries that the United States believes may harbor or encourage terrorists. A 1998 rule already requires fingerprints and photographs to be taken from visitors from Libya, Iraq, Sudan and Iran, four nations listed on the State Department's terror list.
Ashcroft said it will affect 100,000 people in its first year, and by 2005 will apply to all 35 million annual visitors to the United States.
"No country is totally exempt, and no country, except those countries that are listed on the state sponsors of terrorism, has a universal imposition," he said.
Ashcroft added that many European nations already undertake the practice of rigorous registration systems for foreign visitors.
Concerns rose nearly immediately that the fingerprinting rule, which already is required of foreigners who receive green cards, would infringe on civil rights.
"This is yet another in a series of government policies that target Muslims and Arabs as if they are genetically predisposed to violence," said Nihad Awad, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "What is next, forcing American Muslims to wear a star and crescent as a means of identification for law enforcement authorities?"
"I get concerned about the long arm of the federal government when it comes to taking actions like this that may or may not be helpful and certainly may be invasive. But I'd want to take a closer look and talk to more people than I've talked to to give you any final conclusion about whether that's a good idea or not," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
The White House responded that the president is fully aware of civil liberties concerns and is doing what it takes to guard them.
"There are laws on the books that allow the United States government to protect the American people. And the president knows that we can take action to protect people that is fully in accordance with protecting civil rights and civil liberties," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said..
Judy Golub of the American Immigration Lawyers Association said the proposal could be the first step toward requiring all visitors — and perhaps all citizens — to carry government identification cards.
"We don't need false solutions to real problems and this is what this is," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.