Some Mexicans Exempt From Fingerprinting

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

Asa Hutchinson (search), 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 (search), comes on the eve of his visit to President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

As part of the US-VISIT (search) 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 that people on terrorist 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. Fox was upset that under the expanded plan, Mexicans would have been 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 fingreprinted 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 as of now.

Nearly 360 million travelers entered the United States at all the nation's land ports of entry in 2002.

A program to log foreigners' departures also is being developed.