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Visiting US' Better grin and bear VISIT
- Fingerprint-and-photograph regime kicks off in America with missed flights and baggage pile-up

Newark (New Jersey), Dec. 29: Indians arriving in the US are getting a foretaste of America’s new, anti-terrorist measures for admitting foreigners into the country.

With less than a week to go before the implementation of a new US Visitor and Immigrant Status Indication Technology (US-VISIT) programme at 115 international airports and 14 seaports in this country, hundreds of Indians — and most other arriving aliens — were fingerprinted and photographed at Liberty International Airport here last weekend.

The procedure, which led to delays, missed connecting flights and pile-up of baggage, was also tried out at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, another busy entry point for Indians.

US-VISIT will be implemented across America on January 5, according to Asa Hutchinson, under-secretary for border and transportation security in the recently-created department of homeland security.

He said the department wanted to start its implementation on New Year’s day, but postponed it to next Monday to get over the holiday rush.

From that day, in addition to the usual entry procedure of passport check and questioning by an immigration officer, inkless fingerprints and digital photographs will be taken at immigration booths.

The system consists of a small box that digitally scans fingerprints and a spherical digital camera on a tripod facing a passenger. It enables instant checking against a national database for criminal background and terrorist lists. The photograph will also become part of a database for US law enforcement agencies.

It is estimated that 24 million foreigners arriving with visas every year will be fingerprinted and photographed when entering the US.

The scrutiny will be repeated when visitors leave US soil to ensure that they have complied with visa limitations and do not overstay their visas. Until now, there were no immigration booths at departure points in America and departure information was collected from airline check-in.

All 19 of the September 11 hijackers travelled to the US legally on either visitor or business visas, one on a student visa. However, some of them overstayed their visas.

Canadians, Japanese and citizens of 26 other countries in Europe will not be fingerprinted or photographed on arrival even after January 5. They do not need visas to enter and stay in the US for up to 90 days.

The system for the new security checks is said to be very accurate: false hits have so far been less than 0.1 per cent. A person whose fingerprints or photos cause any concern would not be refused entry.

There would be a secondary inspection, further questioning and checks.

But travel industry representatives have already voiced their concerns. Some earlier post-September 11 measures — such as rigorous passenger and baggage screening — designed to improve air travel and airport security have proved to be time-consuming and have caused delays, eventually hurting air travel.

Bill Strassberger, the spokesman for the department of homeland security, said the process should take 10 or 15 seconds per person at the checkpoint once screeners become proficient. However, that was not the experience at the airport here last weekend.

Major airports in the US receive thousands of international visitors every day and seconds spoken of by officials may easily add to hours of waiting.

Problems will be particularly acute for passengers who have to catch connecting flights. According to procedures here, a foreigner has to pass the immigration booth with fingerprinting and photograph taken, claim his or her baggage, pass through customs point, re-check the baggage for a connecting flight, pass through passenger and baggage security screening — what usually includes taking off coats, jackets and shoes.

The US Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) has already issued a press release with travel tips in anticipation of possible delays at the airports.

Apart from the list of “permitted and prohibited items”, it advises passengers to avoid wearing shoes, clothing, jewellery and accessories that contain metal because that may set off metal detectors. All metal items are to be placed into a carry-on baggage.

Looking for coins, keys, mobile phones and similar small items in your pockets, untying your belt, all that adds to lost precious minutes in long lines.

Travellers are to refrain from taking wrapped gifts to the airport, security screeners may unwrap the gift items in order to inspect them. And one should not forget to label a laptop computer. Those are one of the most misplaced and forgotten items at screening checkpoints.

After successful security screening comes a run to a particular gate. That can take considerable time at huge international airports and vast terminals.

This writer missed her connecting flight from Newark last weekend and lost her baggage.

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