WASHINGTON – A program requiring foreigners to be fingerprinted and photographed before entering the country is being expanded to include millions of travelers from some of America's closest allies, U.S. officials said Friday.
The move affects citizens in 27 countries — including Britain, Japan and Australia — who had been allowed to travel within the United States without a visa for up to 90 days, according to the Homeland Security Department (search).
Under changes in the US-VISIT program (search) that will take effect by Sept. 30, they will be fingerprinted and photographed when they enter through any of 115 international airports and 14 seaports. There are no changes in unique rules covering visits by Canadians and Mexicans.
The Bush administration made the move after determining most of the so-called "visa-waiver countries" won't meet an October deadline to have biometric passports, said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security. Such passports include fingerprint and iris identification features that make the documents virtually impossible to counterfeit.
Citizens from those countries still won't have to go through the consulate interviews, background checks, fingerprinting and photographing that people from other nations must do to obtain a visa.
The US-VISIT program was passed by Congress in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In January, the U.S. government began fingerprinting and photographing visitors from nations other than the visa-waiver countries.
About 5 million people have been processed so far and more than 200 with prior or suspected criminal or immigration violations have been stopped, according to Homeland Security.
Hutchinson said adding the estimated 13 million annual visitors from visa-waiver countries should not create massive backlogs at airports and seaports. He said it takes only 23 seconds per person to take fingerprints and photos and check them against government files.
However, fingerprinting the visa-waiver citizens could have ramifications for Americans when they travel abroad. When US-VISIT began last winter, Brazil retaliated by requiring Americans visiting that country to be fingerprinted and photographed.
Hutchinson said he does not expect other countries will follow Brazil's example. He and other U.S. officials have been talking to their counterparts in the visa-waiver countries and told them their nations could be added to US-VISIT. None expressed strong reservations, he said.
"Our allies, they will see this as a good security measure," he said.
The visa-waiver countries are: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.