WASHINGTON – Beginning next year, foreign visitors to this country will have to go through an extra layer of security.
Foreigners arriving at U.S. airports or seaports beginning Jan. 1, 2004, will have their travel documents scanned, fingerprints and photos taken and identification checked against terrorist watch lists.
Details of the new U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology (search) program, or U.S. VISIT, were released Monday by Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson (search). Hutchinson's department will keep an eye on the whereabouts of certain foreign travelers.
The checks will apply to people who arrive in the U.S. carrying visas, which last year was about 60 percent, or 23 million, of the foreign visitors, said Hutchinson, who oversees Border and Transportation Security.
"In 99.9 percent of the cases, the visitor will simply be wished a good day or sent on their way," Hutchinson said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search), a Washington think tank. "But with that small percentage of hits, our country will be made much safer and our immigration system will be given a foundation of integrity that has been lacking for too long."
Noting that many of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers had overstayed their visas and that one was not even attending college as he was obligated to do under the student visa program, Hutchinson said the new system could prevent those oversights.
"Our immigration policies must recognize and reflect this new reality," he said. "Congress has directed us to improve the system and make it work. The Department of Homeland Security has a unique opportunity to fulfill that mission. It’s never been more important that we do so."
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) announced U.S. VISIT earlier this month.
When the visitor leaves, the person's departure will be verified with the U.S. VISIT system.
The program will collect, maintain, and share information, including biometric identifiers on foreign nationals to determine whether individuals should be prohibited from entering the United States, whether they can receive, extend, change, or adjust immigration status, whether they have overstayed their visas; and whether special attention needs to be given to the individual.
The system's biometric capabilities, which will enable it to capture and read a biometric identifier at air and sea ports of entry, should be ready by the end of this year. That information will be checked against terrorist databases.
"Through this 'virtual border,' we will know who violates our entry requirements, who overstays or violates the terms of their stay, and who should be welcome again," Hutchinson said.
Also as part of the program, Hutchinson said the department has created an Office of Compliance that will analyze all the information collected from visitors and refer any requiring follow up to investigators.
DHS Privacy Officer Nuala O'Connor Kelly will closely monitor efforts made to protect people's personal information.
Compliance officers will work with foreign students and universities to learn the rules.
"We’re not here to play 'gotcha,'" Hutchinson said. "We would prefer to see the law obeyed rather than to punish violators."
For the first time, DHS will also work with and through the consular offices and the State Department to oversee the visa issuance process. And, the new department will encourage countries to use tamper-proof passports that include biometric identifiers to enhance security.
"This unity of border and visa responsibilities will allow for a better flow of information and a coordinated response to immigration violations," Hutchinson said.
The U.S. VISIT program will receive $380 million from the fiscal 2003 budget. Another $5 million has been given to DHS to make sure the agency meets certain conditions necessary to carry out the program.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.