A new system that will process visa -holding foreigners visiting the United States went into operation Monday. The response to the system, domestic and abroad, has been mixed and it remains questionable if the measures will make the United States safer.
After several airports, including Newark, ran pilot projects last weekend, all 115 U.S. airports that service international flights and 14 major seaports implemented the new procedure Monday. Aside from the usual forms requesting information about the nature of their trip, visitors entering the country on non-tourist visas will now be fingerprinted and photographed at immigration checkpoints. Fingerprints are recorded from passengers by putting both index fingers on a digital scanning unit. A small camera on a swivel arm takes a digital picture of each passenger.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the data will be used for the Arrival and Departure Information System that works in conjunction with the Student and Exchange Visitor Information Service (SEVIS). Visitors are expected to follow the reasons for visiting that they declared upon entering the country. The same system will eventually take fingerprints and photos again when the individuals leave the country to ensure that visas are not overstayed.
This has been a concern since 2 of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 had entered the United States on student visas, yet had not attended classes at the universities in which they were enrolled.
While the whole procedure only adds 15 seconds to the process, critics have argued that it does little to protect the country from terrorists who are intent on entering the country. Since the flights that were cancelled over the Christmas holidays were to take off from one of the 27 destinations which are exempt from the program, its effectiveness is questionable.
Of more concern to visitors are several issues about the gathered data remain unknown. For example, for how long will the data be retained and more importantly, who has access to the data and under what conditions?
It seems that the United States has yet to find a balance between security measures that make sense and are effective, and the protection of the rights and privacy of individuals, be they citizens or not. For many visitors, their first glimpse of the “land of the free” will be procedures normally reserved for criminals. It is, after all, the first impression that counts.