LAREDO, Texas – Getting into America at three U.S. land crossings is about to get a little more complicated for some visitors.
Gateways from Mexico at Laredo and Douglas, Ariz., have been chosen to begin testing the Homeland Security Department's (search) increased border security technology on Monday. The Canadian border city of Port Huron, Mich., also is participating.
The technology — which calls for fingerprinting, photographing and running checks on suspicious visitors — has been in place at U.S. airports and seaports since Jan. 5, but officials want to pinpoint any glitches before the program extends to the nation's 50 busiest land crossings by year's end.
"We always test first," said Anna Hinken (search), program outreach manager.
Extra security requirements were passed by Congress in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and have been in place for nearly all non-U.S. citizens since January.
Digital fingerscans and photos are matched with databases to determitestingne if visitors might be wanted for immigration problems and crimes or are on lists barring them from entering the country because of suspected terrorist ties.
The information will be stored indefinitely in a national database, but Homeland Security officials promised its use would be restricted to ensure privacy. By the end of 2005, the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, or US-VISIT (search), is scheduled to be used at all 165 land border crossings.
Homeland Security is spending $340 million implementing inkless fingerprinting machines, digital cameras and computer equipment. Another $340 million has been allocated for 2005.
Business and political leaders in some border cities fought the system initially, fearing the program could slow traffic and have a negative effect on local economies. But, the infusion of federal money and personnel to the border could actually improve trade.
Laredo each year has 4.6 million pedestrians, 1.4 million trucks, 6.8 million private vehicles and more than 40,000 buses cross its four international bridges, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
"At the very beginning we were led to believe... that this program was going to be bad for us," Laredo Mayor Betty Flores said. "From what I witnessed ... the program is going to be good for us."
Maria Luisa O'Connell, president of the Border Trade Alliance, agreed.
"From what I have seen and what I have heard in our conversations with Homeland Security, what they're looking to do at this first stage seems to be OK," she said. "We don't believe that it's going to cause more backups or lines."
Leaders of the other two pilot sites also said they were optimistic.
Douglas, Ariz., Mayor Ray Borane said he had met with Homeland Security officials and was convinced US-VISIT would not disrupt the busy crossing to Agua Prieta, Mexico.
Thomas Hutka, city manager of Port Huron, Mich., said US-VISIT made city officials feel more secure. "Anything that helps them identify who people are helps us," he said.
Jim Williams, director of US-VISIT, said Mexican citizens holding Border Crossing Cards, or laser visas, would not be subject to the printing and photographing.
The cards allow Mexicans to enter the United States for short visits, as long as they do not travel more than 25 miles from the border in Texas, California and New Mexico; and 75 miles in Arizona.