| A reporter’s finger on a fingerprinting machine at JFK airport in New York. (AFP)
Atlanta, Jan. 5 (Reuters): The US began fingerprinting and photographing visitors from most countries today in a controversial programme to try to prevent potential terrorists from slipping in through the borders.
The programme was launched at 115 airports and 14 cruise ship ports across the country, but not yet at land borders, which account for a large part of traffic into the US.
Tourists and business travellers on short visits from 27 mostly European nations are exempt from the new measures. Canadians, who fall under special immigration rules, are also exempt. Some foreign nationals have complained of discrimination and Brazil last week began fingerprinting and photographing all arriving US citizens.
Federal officials said the measures, which were ordered by Congress in response to the September 11, 2001, hijacked plane attacks, would tighten security without causing any undue inconvenience to travellers. “It is easy for travellers to use, but hard for terrorists to avoid,” department of homeland security secretary Tom Ridge told a news conference at Atlanta’s international airport shortly after the system began.
Ridge greeted and shook hands with the first travellers to be processed in Atlanta under the US-VISIT system. Atlanta’s airport is said by officials there to be the world’s busiest passenger airport, with an average of 2,400 flights arriving and departing daily.
The new fingerprinting and photographing programme is meant to identify people who have violated immigration controls, have criminal records or belong to groups listed as terrorist organisations by the US.
At Miami International Airport, which receives a large part of passenger traffic from Latin America and the Caribbean, passengers interviewed after going through the process said they had no problem with the screening, and took no offense.
“I think it’s good with everything that’s going on,” said Scott Murray, a Jamaican arriving at the airport. “If you have nothing to hide, it shouldn’t be a problem. I wasn’t offended.” But the Brazilian fingerprint programme of US visitors that began last Thursday came on the orders of a judge who angrily compared the new US controls to Nazi horrors.
Armed police patrolled airport terminals and aviation authorities were on high alert today after several international flights were grounded last week amid fears of another September 11style terror attack.
Britain’s foreign secretary Jack Straw said security checks on aircraft and passengers were vital, but that terror alerts should not paralyse normal life.