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Foreign Visitors to U.S. Will Cross Digital Divide

Starting today at major hubs, travelers will be scanned. Some expect delays and loopholes.

January 05, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

During 2003 trials of US-VISIT at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the system added an average of about 15 seconds to arrival processing, the government said.

The departure component of US-VISIT is supposed to take effect by the end of 2004. Visitors leaving the country will be required to have their fingerprints scanned at special kiosks.

Arrival and departure information would then be automatically reconciled, a big improvement over the current system that involves paper records. The government expects to dramatically reduce the number of foreigners who overstay their visas. Overstays account for about a third of the estimated 10 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Hutchinson said the travel industry should welcome the new system because of the added security it will provide. "We are working very hard to make sure that US-VISIT facilitates travel," he said.

US-VISIT would also replace the domestic registration of visitors from mostly Middle Eastern and Muslim countries, which created diplomatic and civil rights controversies.

On the Mexican border, where US-VISIT is scheduled to be phased in at major crossings by the end of 2004, the exit portion of the system is creating anxiety. Currently, people leaving the United States at land crossings do not usually have to stop for American authorities.

Border crossing points are not designed to accommodate exit checks, say critics.

"We are against any exit system that will slow down legitimate trade and travel," said Garrick Taylor, director of policy development for the Border Trade Alliance, a Phoenix-based business group. "We are certainly supportive of the goals of US-VISIT -- it's the implementation that's got to go right."

At the request of border-area groups, the government is considering a recommendation to exempt Mexican citizens who hold a U.S. border crossing card from US-VISIT.

Holders of the card, who generally have strong work-related or family ties in the United States, account for about 30% of all land crossings.

Hutchinson said no final decisions have been made on how the system will work at land crossings. "The last thing we want to do is develop a system that clogs the borders," he said. "We have a commitment to make sure we do not implement this in a way that harms border communities."

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