A federal program to randomly check cars in a search for terrorists and illegal immigrants was being brought to Michigan, home of the largest concentration of Arabs in America.
Starting Tuesday, U.S. Border Patrol agents at the random checkpoints will ask passengers their citizenship and will have leeway to ask a host of follow-up questions.
"It's all about homeland security. Bottom line, we are here to be vigilant about the safety and security of the American people,'' INS spokesman Greg Palmore said before a news conference Tuesday.
New York, Vermont and New Hampshire are among the northern border areas that already have similar programs in place, said Mario Villarreal, a Border Patrol spokesman. Officials also set up a similar program in northwest Washington state last weekend, he said.
The practice of checkpoints is common in southern border states such as Texas and California.
Michigan is home to about 350,000 Arab-Americans, more on a percentage basis than any other state. The population is concentrated in southeastern Michigan.
A civil liberties group raised concerns about the new searches.
"We believe it's going to be very hard for them to do this without violating people's civil rights, or profiling people based on their ethnicity or accent,'' said Kary Moss, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan.
Since Sept. 11 of this year, more than 14,000 foreign visitors from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria have been fingerprinted at U.S. border crossings and 179 have been arrested, Attorney General John Ashcroft said last week. The countries are considered as high-risk for terrorism.
The Justice Department also announced last week that thousands of men from the five countries who arrived in the United States between Jan. 1 and Sept. 10 will also have to be fingerprinted and photographed.