"Any government has a right to apply security measures. But this is tantamount to racial profiling," said Audrey Jamal, executive director of the Canadian Arab Federation, which speaks in behalf of 500,000 Canadian Arabs. "Security policies should not target one ethnic group over another, nor erode civil liberties. Our community is feeling tremendously targeted."
Other critics question the security value of such a system. Last month, Rep. Jim Turner (D-Tex.) publicized a Stanford University study that said matching two fingerprints with an existing database works only 53 percent of the time. And critics in Canada say potential terrorist groups are not going to use operatives whose fingerprints already are known to the United States.
Veronica Mercado, from Guadalajara, Mexico, has her finger scanned as she enters U.S. in Laredo, Tex.
(Photos Eddie Rios -- AP)
"This is not a measure to make America safer," said Sharri Aiken, an immigration law professor at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. "The people who are responsible for these kinds of attacks have no prior record. They aren't known to authorities, for the most part, and would likely come up absolutely clean in a biometric scan.
"Fingerprinting will not make any Americans any safer and represents an overzealous criminalization of the border."
Robert Mocny, deputy director of the US-VISIT program in Washington, part of the Homeland Security Department, disputes allegations that the program is racially discriminatory and insists that the data collected are protected by U.S. privacy laws. He said the new program was "not sold only as an anti-terrorist program. It is a multifaceted program" to modernize border procedures and "strengthen the immigration system."
Homeland Security officials acknowledged that the system would not stop a potential terrorist with no record. But they say it will be a useful law enforcement tool.
"Our concern is with the safety of the American public and those visiting the United States," said David Dusellier, manager at the Port Huron entry point. "This will allow us to capture information on persons coming in, and if there were an event, we will have information in the system so that law enforcement can identify and capture them."
The new system also will enable customs agents to catch those using someone else's passport more easily, by instantly comparing their picture at the border with photos taken for previous visa applications, Dusellier said. Eventually, he said, it might be extended to people leaving the country, "to ensure that those people who come into the United States go back out again and don't overstay beyond the legal limits."
The program, with the touristy acronym US-VISIT -- for Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology -- was approved by Congress to try to identify those who overstay their visa limits. But so far there is no check when leaving the United States by land. Most land borders do not have the physical facilities on exit, officials said.
"That's our next challenge," Mocny said. For now, Homeland Security officials instead tout the program's potential to catch incoming persons linked to other crimes.
"We have done a remarkable job of working with the FBI to get fingerprints of criminals who are foreign nationals," Mocny said. He said arrests at airports as a result of the program "point to a demonstrable increase in security."
Both the Mexican and Canadian borders have considerable daily shuttling of trucks and workers, and critics say the new process will exacerbate delays.
"This program could turn what has traditionally been a bottleneck into a complete blockage," said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a leading international relations specialist in Mexico City. He said the United States has to worry about security, but "this could be truly terrible. The border, instead of being a connecting bridge, is becoming a dividing line."
Omar Bazan Flores, a Mexican federal congressman who represents the border state of Chihuahua, said the new security program "shows a measure of distrust" of Mexicans. He said the measure "is obviously going to be detrimental to Mexicans, because of the longer waits and more intense questioning of those who want to cross the border."
Border officials insist the new procedures will take little time to complete.
"Legitimate travelers should spend five minutes in here and be on down the road," Dusellier said. "This is going to be quicker, and make their travel a lot more expedited."
Sullivan reported from Mexico City. Researcher Bart Beeson in Mexico City contributed to this report.