WASHINGTON — One year after launching a digital screening system to help identify suspicious foreigners arriving in the United States by air and sea, federal officials announced Monday that they have extended the program to the 50 busiest U.S. land ports along the Canadian and Mexican borders -- including six checkpoints in California.
The program uses digital scanners to examine prints taken from the two index fingers, as well as head-shot photographs taken with digital cameras.
Those "biometric" identifiers can then be matched against several databases, verifying the identity of visitors and checking federal and state watch lists.
Last year, the new tools helped authorities arrest or deny entry to 372 people sought for federal or state crimes or identified as violators of immigration law, according to Department of Homeland Security officials.
None of those apprehended was linked to terrorist plots, officials acknowledged. Identifying terrorism suspects became the prime challenge for border security after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks exposed lapses in how the federal government tracks the whereabouts of foreigners who are potential terrorist threats.
Still, a senior Homeland Security official declared the first phase of the program a success. US-VISIT, short for U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, has become "the gold standard for security and convenience," said Asa Hutchinson, the department's undersecretary for border and transportation security.
Congressional Democrats say US-VISIT, which has cost more than $700 million so far, has serious flaws that hinder its ability to combat terrorism.
"At the end of the day, our argument is, 'You're spending all this money, but how many terrorists have you caught?' " said Moira Whelan, a spokeswoman for the Democratic members of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.
Hutchinson acknowledged that no terrorism suspects had been detained under the system, but he asserted that it served as an increasingly effective defense against the threat of terrorism.
The system has been installed in 115 airports, 15 seaports and 50 land ports. The remaining 115 land ports will be included by the end of this year, Hutchinson said. Many of those are in remote areas such the Canadian border with Montana, Alaska and North Dakota.
Hutchinson said the screening process had cut paperwork and border-crossing times for many foreigners. He cited data showing that the average checkpoint wait for certain classes of visitors had dropped to 2 minutes, 33 seconds in Laredo, Texas. The average wait had been 12 minutes, 10 seconds.
Similarly, at Douglas, Ariz., the average wait dropped to 3 minutes, 29 seconds, from 4 minutes, 16 seconds. At Port Huron, Mich., it dropped to 9 minutes, 51 seconds, from 11 minutes, 42 seconds, he said.
No crossing-time figures were immediately available for the affected California land ports of entry: Andrade, Calexico East-Imperial Valley, Calexico West, Otay Mesa, San Ysidro and Tecate.
Critics of the system note that there is no comprehensive check on when visitors leave the country.
U.S. officials reply that the beginnings of a digital exit-check system are in place at the Chicago, Denver, Baltimore/Washington and Dallas/Fort Worth airports and at a cruise ship terminal in Miami. The exit checks are being expanded to nine additional locations, including the San Pedro and Long Beach seaports, officials said.
US-VISIT does not affect U.S. citizens.
Nor does it affect many Canadians and Mexicans who cross the border. The typical Canadian citizen can enter the United States with a passport or other valid identification.
Many Mexicans who enter by land use a "border crossing card" issued by the State Department that allows temporary stays within a defined border zone.
But certain classes of foreigners are pulled aside for extra scrutiny under US-VISIT. They include foreigners required to obtain U.S. visas as well as those from 27 European and Pacific Rim countries -- including Britain, France, Japan and Australia -- who do not have to obtain such visas.
Canadian permanent residents who hold passports from other foreign countries and certain Canadian nationals who require special visas undergo the extra screening. So do Mexicans who use their border crossing cards to travel outside the border zone or stay longer than ordinarily allowed.
In all, 16.9 million foreign visitors were checked through the US-VISIT system in 2004.
The 372 cases Hutchinson cited in which authorities arrested or denied entry to foreign visitors included fugitives from federal prisons, convicted rapists, drug dealers and a convicted armed robber. They also included people who had violated immigration laws; some were attempting to enter with fraudulent visas.