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Foreign students face increased customs security

Miller-Lemon, Julia | Thursday, January 15, 2004

A new security screening process was launched Monday in an effort to keep terrorists from entering the United States, requiring international travelers to be digitally fingerprinted and photographed as they pass through customs.The new program, named U.S.-VISIT, or U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, allows federal authorities to keep track of foreign visitors, mostly tourists, students or business travelers. Fingerprints and photographs are put into a law-enforcement database that eventually will allow users to view photos of visa holders and ensure they match the person who is seeking to enter the country. The travel data is supposed to be securely stored within the Department of Homeland Security and made available only to authorized officials. An estimated 24 million international travelers enter the United States each year. The new $820 million program, which is in place at 14 seaports and 115 major airports, allows customs and immigration officials to check passengers instantly against terrorist watch lists and a national criminal database.According to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, the goal of the program is to “make sure our borders are open to visitors but closed to terrorists.” The new security should allow customs and border officials to “focus on ‘at-risk’ travelers while speeding the entry of everyone else,” Ridge said.Notre Dame junior Gabe Letona encountered the new screening process when he returned to South Bend from his native Guatemala following a semester abroad. Like other international travelers, Letona was digitally fingerprinted on both his left and right index finger, and then photographed by a small, eyeball-sized camera as he passed through customs.”Security didn’t really take any longer than it normally does,” Letona said. “Customs officials were really strict about having all of your paper work completely filled out, but it didn’t really seem like it was causing any big delays.”Many international travelers anticipated major delays as a result of the new screening process, but reports from the Department of Homeland Security indicate that the added security only adds 10 to 15 extra seconds onto the current security procedures. “I think that the added security is a good thing,” Letona said. “I’m sure a lot of people might feel like it’s an infringement on their rights, but I feel more secure now than I did before.”However, while he did understand that the new process has been put into place to protect the United States, he did express that he now felt like he was the one who security was targeting. “I’d feel more secure if I was an American, if it was my country,” Letona said. “It made me realize that the security is to protect the United States more than me, but I understand why they are doing it.”The changes come as the United States has entered a third consecutive week on high alert for terrorism, resulting in especially tightened security around foreign flights. Since New Year’s Eve, terrorist threats and security threats have grounded or cancelled fourteen flights on British Airways, Aero Mexico and Air France. The only exceptions to the new screening process are travelers from Canada who present proof of citizenship and Mexican citizens who are able to obtain a permit for stays up to three days. Also granted exception are travelers from the 27 European nations whose citizens are allowed to stay in the United States for up to 90 days without a visa, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Japan.While only the Baltimore-Washington International Airport has a system to track foreigners as they leave the country, the framework is in place to ensure that all airports will have the system by the end of the year.