Fingerprints part of widening security net
US plan to closely track foreign visitors comes as Europe tightens borders.
WASHINGTON — Attorney General John Ashcroft's new plan to fingerprint and photograph visitors from some two dozen Arab and Muslim countries is just one of a growing number of state, federal, and even global initiatives to keep closer tabs on suspect groups of foreigners.
Many US states, for instance, are adding new restrictions to visa holders' driver's licenses.
On the federal level, Mr. Ashcroft's fingerprint plan follows other new programs to track foreign students and limit the length of visitors' stays.
In Europe, meanwhile, the recent electoral success of anti-immigrant parties combined with the Sept. 11 attacks is sparking talk of a Europe-wide border patrol and of using a new satellite system to track immigrants. And the Italian legislature is considering its own fingerprinting system focused on non-European visitors.
Taken together, the moves promise to create significant new layers of defense against terrorism and illegal immigration, but the gains could come at a cost to economic and social openness.
The danger, critics say, is that new measures will beget nation-specific discrimination. Such blanket suspicion of entire peoples may not only alienate them from a melting-pot ideal but also choke a profitable inflow of tourists and foreign students.
Yet supporters say the reality is that terrorist attackers are far more likely to come from Arab and Muslim nations than, say, Norway or Sweden. And nation-based profiling has long been a fact of life: Immigration agents should and do closely scrutinize visitors from, say, Iran.
"We make profiling a bad word, when in fact we profile all the time," says former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) official Ben Ferro. "If witnesses say a bank robber got away in a red convertible, we look for a red convertible."
Another worry is that the new programs will overwhelm authorities with new tasks and new data and may not actually work. Alleged shoe-bomber Richard Reid, for instance, traveled on a British passport not one from an Arab nation last December as he tried to sabotage a transatlantic flight.
"Logistically it will be a nightmare," says Mr. Ferro of the new program. "On top of everything else backlogged at the INS, this couldn't come at a worse time."
Indeed, Mr. Ashcroft's announcement is just the latest new demand on beleaguered agencies.
Under the new plan, immigration officials would fingerprint, photograph, and closely question visitors who may pose "higher national security risks" including those from some two dozen countries where terrorists are known to operate. This would apply to some 100,000 visitors per year. Further, it would require "higher risk" people who stay longer than 30 days to periodically register with the INS and notify authorities of their whereabouts. Also, it would aim to better monitor whether they overstay their visas or leave the country.
Also, all "higher risk" visitors now in the US would have to register and get fingerprinted and photographed..
Ashcroft says the fingerprinting is key to preventing a terror attack. "Terrorists and wanted criminals often attempt to enter the country using assumed names or false documents," he said Wednesday. "But fingerprints don't lie."
Critics say that authorities had little inkling that any of the Sept. 11 hijackers were terrorists, so their fingerprints and photos wouldn't have helped.
"The information we would have collected on them would have made them look just like hundreds of thousands of other people," says Demetrios Papademetriou of the Center for Migration Studies here.
Yet if the CIA or the FBI had been able to "connect the dots" and identify those individuals as dangerous, perhaps the new system would have helped them locate the men before the attack.
Other recent steps include:
Enhanced tracking of students. A new foreign-student tracking program will eventually link all US embassies and consulates abroad with every INS entry point and all colleges who accept foreign students.
Tougher visa rules. The INS plans to end automatic granting of six-month tourist and business-traveler visas, to make it harder for terrorists to live in the US and plan attacks. The tourism industry says the move would mean lost sales.
Caps on driver's licenses. Minnesota will soon make foreign visitors' driver's licenses expire the same day as their visas. Such changes, in the works in 20 states, aim to prevent people from using a driver's license as ID while staying illegally in the US.
The moves have echoes in Europe. At a European Union summit in Spain this month, the main topic will be immigration. One plan on the table: A Europe-wide border patrol. In Italy, a proposed law would require all non-European Union visitors to be fingerprinted if they stay three months.
In Germany, police now routinely observe mosques and other places where Muslims gather. Visa applicants from "problem nations" may face tougher inspections of papers, says Bernd Knoph, spokesman for the German Immigration Commissioner.
Courtney Walsh and Andreas Tzortzis contributed from Rome and Berlin.