US-VISIT begins at Hartsfield-Jackson

By Ed Brock

Steve Morrow of England was most impressed by the smoothness with which the new US-VISIT security screening technology was implemented at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

"This is the most efficient airport I've been through," said Morrow who visits the United States frequently on business.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge visited the airport Monday morning for the official kick-off of the US-VISIT program that involves scanning fingerprints and taking pictures of most foreign visitors.

All 115 U.S. airports that handle international flights and 14 major seaports are covered by the program, under which Customs officials can instantly check an immigrant or visitor's criminal background.

Called US-VISIT, or U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, the program will check an estimated 24 million foreigners each year, though some will be repeat visitors.

"Unfortunately, some people have sought to take advantage of our open arms and welcoming shores, so we must continue to protect our citizens and visitors from those who which us harm," Ridge said. "US-VISIT will allow Customs and Border Protection Officers to focus on ?at-risk' travelers while speeding the entry of everyone else."

Hartsfield-Jackson has been testing the system since Nov. 17 and Ridge said that in that time of the 20,000 travelers processed 21 were on the FBI's criminal watch list for crimes such as statutory rape, dangerous drugs, aggravated felonies and visa fraud.

Fewer than 1 percent of the other passengers encountered problems, said the Transportation Security Administration's Atlanta spokeswoman Yolanda Clark. The pilot program was done on a voluntary basis, Clark said, and involved passengers from Central and South America, Europe, Asia and South Africa.

The roll out of the program went well, Hartsfield-Jackson spokeswoman Lanii Thomas said.

"We have not had any negative comments from passengers on this system," Thomas said.

The United Kingdom is one of 28 countries on the U.S. State Department's Visa Waiver Program list that are also exempt from the US-VISIT program, so Morrow did not have to get his picture taken or his fingerprint scanned. Also flying in from London Monday was Blake Elder of Augusta and he also said other passengers were not delayed by the system.

"It wasn't too complicated," Elder said.

Some countries did take offense at the new system.

Brazilian police started fingerprinting and photographing Americans arriving at Sao Paulo's airport last week in response to the new U.S. rules.

Brazil's Foreign Ministry has requested that Brazilians be removed from the U.S. list.

"At first, most of the Americans were angered at having to go through all this, but they were usually more understanding once they learned that Brazilians are subjected to the same treatment in the U.S.," Wagner Castilho, press officer for the federal police in Sao Paulo, said of those arriving at Sao Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport last Thursday.

The U.S. system consists of a small box that digitally scans fingerprints and a spherical computer camera that snaps pictures. It will be used for the estimated 24 million foreigners traveling on tourist, business and student visas who enter through an airport or seaport.

The new system will gradually phase out a paper-based system that Congress mandated be modernized following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A person whose fingerprints or photos raise questions would not be turned away automatically. The visa holder would be sent to secondary inspection for further questions and checks. Officials have said false hits on the system have been less than 0.1 percent in trial runs.

The system was scheduled to begin operation Jan. 1, but was delayed to avoid the busy holiday travel period.

Congress provided $368 million to produce the system and put it in airports, but only provided $330 million of the $400 million President Bush requested to put the system in land borders in 2004.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.