LOS ANGELES – Tightening its defenses against terrorism, the United States on Thursday began fingerprinting and photographing visitors from some of America's staunchest allies upon their arrival in this country.
The Homeland Security Department (search) estimated the new requirements would affect 33,000 visitors a day but would add only 15 seconds to the processing time. The fingerprinting is done digitally, sparing travelers from getting their fingers smudged with ink.
Ana Hinojosa, area port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (search) at the Los Angeles International Airport, said the additional screenings "will significantly enhance our security posture."
"Terrorists don't necessarily have a particular nationality, or a particular name, age," she said. "It's a moving target and we need to be able to adapt."
The security requirements were already in place for nearly all other nations. As of Thursday, they were expanded to 27 countries whose citizens do not need visas for 90-day visits. Those countries include England, Australia, Italy and Japan.
The program went into effect Thursday at the country's 115 international airports and 14 seaports, and will be expanded to border crossings later.
At the Los Angeles airport, passengers arriving on a Japan Air Lines (search) flight moved quickly through customs.
After showing his passport, Toshikazu Kuki, 74, of Wakayama, Japan, placed his left index finger and then his right index finger on a glass plate that electronically captured his fingerprint. He also had a digital photograph snapped.
A customs agent then ran the information through a computer to determine if the visitor was listed in databases as a potential criminal or terrorist.
"It cannot be helped," Kuki said. He said that as a former bank loan officer, he was used to being photographed for security reasons. However, he said, "There will be many people who feel most strange about being fingerprinted. They will have negative feelings."
International travelers arriving at several airports across the country expressed understanding, though some were surprised.
Pauline Shepherd of Portsmouth, England, said she was "a bit taken aback" by the security check at Boston's Logan International Airport.
"It seems a bit over the top to me, having your photograph and fingerprint taken. I said `We're only over here for a fortnight,"' said Shepherd, visiting Boston with a group. "It wasn't a hassle; it was just unexpected."
Jonas Beckeman, a 30-year-old computer technician from Stockholm visiting New York on business, was checked at the Newark, N.J., airport.
"I understand the concerns," he said. "Also, I'm from Sweden, so I'm pretty used to being regulated by the government."
Arriving at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, 25-year-old Andre Stolze of Leipzig, Germany, noted that "even tourists can be terrorists."
At the Los Angeles airport, travelers passed one-by-one by dozens of stands. They placed their hands on a red-lighted pad and then had photos digitally snapped by a ball-shaped camera on a flexible stand.
In a few seconds, a computer screen flashed a green bar with the message "No hit found" below the passenger's fingerprints and photo. Had there been any reason to hold the person or deny entry, the bar would have flashed red.
Signs with graphics of fingers and cameras gave directions for the procedure. Some carried a cheery welcome and directions in five languages. One included the line: "Homeland Security: Keeping America's doors open and our nation secure."
Austrian Frank Herbert, 38, echoed that message after being screened on arrival before his two-week Southern California vacation.
"No problem," he said. "If it's good for security, then it's good for me."
The 27 countries affected by the change 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 Great Britain.