WASHINGTON -- About 100,000 visitors a year from more than two dozen countries where terrorists have been known to live will be required to give fingerprints, register with the U.S. government and detail their movements under an unprecedented plan unveiled Wednesday.
Another group of nearly 100,000 foreigners who are already in the country to work, study or visit will also be required to undergo fingerprinting and photographing in an effort to weed out suspected terrorists, Justice Department officials said.
The visa registration system, marking the first time the United States has demanded fingerprints of such a large population of foreigners, sparked immediate protests from politicians, civil liberties groups and Arab-American advocates, who said it amounts to wide-scale racial profiling of Muslims and Middle Easterners.
"What is next? Forcing American Muslims to wear a star and crescent as a means of identification for law enforcement authorities?" asked Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.
Immigration experts also expressed doubts about whether such a major expansion of the mandate of the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- an agency already riddled with problems -- could be implemented effectively. And some diplomats within the Bush administration have expressed frustration over the impact that the proposal could have on U.S. relations abroad and on U.S. residents traveling overseas.
Particularly frustrating to critics was that Attorney General John Ashcroft, in announcing a proposal that must still undergo public review, refused to say what criteria will be used to identify the vast majority of those foreign visa-holders subjected to the new system.
Virtually everyone entering the country on visas from five countries on the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism -- Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria -- would be subjected to fingerprinting, registration and much more rigorous questioning than in the past about their plans in the United States, Justice Department officials said.
Visitors from those countries make up less than a fifth of the 100,000 new visitors who would subjected to the new registration system, officials said.
The remainder, Ashcroft said, would be targeted based on criteria to determine their "risk of involvement in terrorist activity" and whether they fall into "categories of elevated national security concern." He refused to say what those categories would be, but Justice Department officials who asked not to be identified said they would likely include nationality, gender and age, among other factors.
A Bush administration official said the number of countries the Justice Department is targeting numbers more than two dozen. Another source placed the figure at 26, with Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan and other Middle Eastern nations among those thought to represent a higher risk.
The criteria for the registrations will be modeled in part on a controversial program that authorities conducted last year in requesting voluntary interviews with more than 5,000 young men in the United States from mainly Middle Eastern countries, according to a law enforcement official.
Judy Golub, senior director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, said, "These are secret criteria from everything we can tell, and that's very worrisome. . . . It sends a terrible signal: if you come from a certain country, you're a problem."
But Ashcroft said the program "will provide a vital line of defense in the war against terrorism," giving the INS expanded authority to stop terrorist suspects at the border and track foreigners once they arrive. It comes on the heels of an expanded effort to do a better job tracking and monitoring foreigners who are studying in this country.
Justice Department officials, relying in part on half-century-old regulations, say that current law already allows them to register and fingerprint any illegal immigrant over age 14 who is in this country for more than 30 days. Those provisions have rarely been employed, but Ashcroft said the immigration vulnerabilities exposed by the Sept. 11 hijackers -- all of whom came into the country through legitimate visas -- demand extraordinary measures.
"Our enemy's platoons infiltrate our borders, quietly blending in with visiting tourists, students, and workers. They move unnoticed through our public spaces. They wear no uniforms," Ashcroft said.
The program has several key components: fingerprinting and photographing those visitors who may pose higher national security risks; subjecting them to much more rigorous questioning about their histories and their plans and contacts in the United States; requiring those who stay more than 30 days to submit to periodic registration with the INS to verify that they are living, working or studying where they said they would be; and better monitoring when visitors leave and whether they have overstayed their visas.
The plan vastly expands the burden on the INS's resources and manpower, threatening to cause long delays at ports of entry once the plan is implemented in the fall as proposed.
Many members of Congress say the INS is already so riddled with management problems that it should be broken up, but Justice Department officials said a requested $380 million increase in President Bush's budget request for INS upgrades should cover the expanded policing role that the agency would assume under Ashcroft's plan.
Ashcroft said the results of a pilot program fingerprinting some would-be visitors at selected ports of entry have been "extremely promising." Running the prints against databases of known criminals and terror suspects, the program has scored an average of 67 "hits" per week, leading to the arrest of 1,400 wanted criminals in the last five months, he said.
Moreover, he noted that many European nations already have registration programs in place that require foreign travelers to register within a week or so of their arrival.
Justice Department officials acknowledged, however, that they were unaware of any major nation that would require widespread fingerprinting of foreigners, and that issue provoked debate in Congress and among immigration advocates about how far the United States should go in its effort to rein in terrorists.
Although the White House voiced support for Ashcroft's plan Wednesday, other departments in the administration have expressed concerns that it may go too far, thus endangering U.S. relations with allies in the Middle East and subjecting Americans traveling overseas to harassment.
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