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Program will use fingerprints, photos to track visa-carrying visitors | (KRT) Seeking to plug a hole in the nation's border control system, the Homeland Security Department on Tuesday showed off its new entry-exit program for foreign visitors that uses biometric information - fingerprints and photographs - to establish identities.

The new system is intended to repair a flaw that allowed visitors to the U.S. to stay long past their visas' expiration - a flaw exploited by the 9/11 terrorists.

Starting Jan. 5, all visitors requiring visas by the U.S. because of their nationalities will have their fingerprints electronically scanned and digital photos taken and entered into the system. The new U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, or U.S. VISIT, is scheduled to be in place at the nation's major airports and seaports, including Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, by the end of this year.

The information is to be entered into a database that would allow immigration and border control authorities to stay abreast of border crossings by visitors.

Besides giving the government the ability to keep better tabs on when visa-bearing visitors enter and leave the country, Homeland Security Department officials also plan to compare visitors' personal data against terror watch lists in the hope that they can prevent suspected terrorists from entering the U.S.

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Investigations after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks revealed that at least two of the 19 hijackers were on such watch lists. In the atmosphere of tightened security following the attacks, Congress ordered the Homeland Security Department to beef up the entry-exit controls at the nation's major entry points by Dec. 31, 2003. The system is to be expanded to the nation's 50 largest border crossings by the end of next year with all ports of entry covered by the end of 2005.

The new program would apply to visitors from most nations who require visas to travel to the U.S. Exceptions would be those travelers from what are called visa-waiver countries such as many European nations and Japan.

Nations in the visa-waiver program allow U.S. travelers to cross their borders without visas and also have enough political and economic stability to assure American officials that their nationals will not overstay their visits in the U.S.

The new system will "give us the most dramatic step forward in increasing security in the modern history of immigration," said Asa Hutchinson, homeland security undersecretary for border and transportation security.

He acknowledged the system won't solve all security problems. For instance, while it might help authorities stop a suspected terrorist whose name was on a watch list generated by intelligence, it would be useless against an individual unknown to intelligence officials.

The former Immigration and Naturalization Service, which since March has been part of the new Homeland Security Department, was widely known for how easily visitors could evade the system and remain on expired visas.

Indeed, several of the Sept. 11 hijackers abused the lax enforcement to stay in the U.S. and continue their planning for the September 2001 attacks.

The airline industry had worried that the new system would create additional delays for international travelers at a time when airline revenues were already hurt by global economic conditions and terrorism fears.

But homeland security officials said the new system would add little time to the process of clearing immigration. During a demonstration featuring a border and customs officer from Dulles International Airport, the added steps of scanning a traveler's index fingers and taking a photograph added scant time to the process.

"Our tests are showing that for those travelers subject to U.S. VISIT, the enhanced security procedures may add only seconds to their overall processing time," said James Williams, director of the new program.

While a border official would operate the computerized equipment used to record an international traveler's arrival, departing travelers would essentially check themselves out of the country using stand-alone kiosks resembling automated teller machines.

Hutchinson said training and testing of the system would begin at the Atlanta airport next month.

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© 2003, Chicago Tribune Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services