By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2006; A14
Millions of legal permanent residents will soon have to be fingerprinted and photographed before reentering the United States by sea or air, in a significant expansion of a long-stalled border security program, officials announced yesterday.
Those requirements of the US-VISIT program will be applied around the end of the year to the more than 11 million holders of green cards, as well as all immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, people paroled to the United States and travelers under the Guam Visa Waiver Program, said Robert A. Mocny, acting director of US-VISIT . Certain Canadians entering for extended business or employment also will be subject to the new rule.
The changes will apply to more than 1.4 million travelers a year, he said. The changes will be open to public comment until Aug. 28.
Congress required immigration officials to develop biometric identifiers for all noncitizens issued official documents, Mocny said. The program now covers about 32 million visitors annually, exempting only some Canadians and Mexicans.
Crystal Williams, deputy director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, questioned why the United States is extending fingerprinting to more travelers when the program does not work as intended.
First proposed by Congress in 1996 and launched in 2004, US-VISIT is designed to automate tracking of visitors when they enter and exit the United States, to help find criminals, potential terrorists and visitors who illegally overstay their visas.
It has recorded 61 million people entering the country through 115 airports, 15 seaports and 154 land ports. Customs agents may fingerprint and photograph green-card holders at land ports at their discretion. But because of technical and policy hurdles, pilot projects have recorded only about 4 million people leaving the country.
"They've only got one half of the US-VISIT program working at all. You would have thought they would be concentrating on a viable exit solution," Williams said. Green-card holders will face longer lines at airports if they can no longer enter through areas set up for U.S. citizens, she said.
Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty Project, said the Department of Homeland Security, which administers US-VISIT, is "overreaching" by including green-card holders, whom he said Congress exempted from requirements for foreign nationals.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, warned that fingerprinting could soon expand to U.S. citizens inside the borders. He cited the Real ID Act, which requires states to set more stringent standards of proof for driver's licenses and include two biometric measures by May 2008. He expects that this fall the Homeland Security Department will propose that those be a photograph and, most likely, fingerprints.
At a news conference, Mocny said US-VISIT is improving immigration controls and the security of citizens and visitors by adding green-card holders and other groups to the list of people who must be fingerprinted. The use of biometric identifiers has been endorsed by the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The panel warned that the nation's immigration and identity document systems are readily evaded.
US-VISIT has captured 1,100 criminals using false documents, Mocny said, and detected one Iraqi detainee who had been released by U.S. forces in Iraq and later tried to apply for a visa under a false name.
The Homeland Security system now collects two fingerprints from each person, but officials hope to pilot a 10-print system next year and deploy it in 2008 or 2009. The smaller system cannot tap into an FBI fingerprint database or include enough data to accurately identify individuals in the entire population, Mocny said. The European Union, Britain and Japan now are looking at fingerprint requirements for their border systems.
"The world is moving to biometrically enabled border control processes," Mocny said. "That is going to become the standard. Ten-finger scans is the standard now for identifying people."
Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.