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New Scrutiny At Border Posts Draws Criticism

By Doug Struck and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 23, 2004; Page A23

PORT HURON, Mich. -- Andrea Schnekenburger pressed her two index fingers on a scanning pad at the U.S. border last Thursday, becoming one of the first travelers to submit such data to a vast new bank of fingerprints and photographs that will be taken of millions of people who cross land borders to enter the United States.

"At least they didn't use ink," said Schnekenburger, 42, a German resident of Canada en route to a U.S. business appointment. "It was easier than I thought."

Veronica Mercado, from Guadalajara, Mexico, has her finger scanned as she enters U.S. in Laredo, Tex. (Photos Eddie Rios -- AP)

This week, three U.S. border crossings -- one from Canada, at Port Huron, and two from Mexico, at Laredo, Tex., and Douglas, Ariz. -- launched a program run by the Department of Homeland Security to collect fingerprints and photos at U.S. borders. It will be expanded to the 50 busiest crossings by the end of next month, U.S. officials said.

The requirements will not apply to U.S. or Canadian citizens or to travelers under age 14 or over 79. There are also exceptions for Mexicans with special border-crossing cards known as laser visas, according to Homeland Security officials.

This means that only 3 percent of an estimated 108 million people who enter the United States at legal land checkpoints each year will be affected, they said, while the program will increase security for the United States, catch criminals and speed up processing at the border by computerizing some functions.

But groups in Canada and Mexico complain that the new process will collect an Orwellian databank of personal information on law-abiding visitors, will unfairly target racial groups, might slow the border-crossing process and is unlikely to ever stop a terrorist from coming into the country.

Mexican critics say the program is another step toward making the borders in America "a dividing line" and a sign of "distrust" of Mexicans. Canadian critics say files created on thousands of their residents will "criminalize" the border process.

Schnekenburger reflects that ambivalence, saying her opinion was divided.

"I kind of felt it was an invasion of my privacy, but on the other hand, I can see the point of it," she said after entering the Customs and Border Protection office on the U.S. side of the soaring Blue Water Bridge that connects to Canada 60 miles north of Detroit.

Those who cross the bridge and have no Canadian passport, like Schnekenburger, are directed into a building where an agent with a tiny camera takes digital photos of them and scans their index fingers.

The system began operating at 130 U.S. airports and seaports in January, and fingerprints and photos already are required as part of the application for anyone needing a visa. But this expansion to land crossings particularly affects the busy daily commerce across the borders of the country's only contiguous neighbors.

Canadian passport holders and Mexicans who work in the United States and have a laser visa card, which already carries the bearer's photo and fingerprint, are now exempt from the program. But U.S. officials have sent mixed signals about whether the data collection eventually will include everyone.

Critics in Canada say the exclusions mean the program unfairly targets an estimated 1 million Canadian residents who are classified as "landed immigrants" or permanent residents who have not obtained a Canadian passport.

"There are a high number of landed immigrants who are from [nonwhite] racial backgrounds," said Margaret Parson, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic in Toronto. "This labels them as potential terrorists."

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