December 8, 2004

New Digital Screening Process for Foreigners

NOGALES, Ariz.(AP) -- Foreigners entering the United States zipped through the lines at the main port here and several other locations in Arizona and California as a new digital screening program went into effect.

In fact, the first few people processed as they crossed the border in Nogales on Monday seemed pleased with the new system implemented by the Department of Homeland Security.

"It's much faster this way," said Adolfo Moroyoqui Felix, who was traveling between Mexico and Phoenix. "They had to fill out paperwork before. It's more effective this way."

Within minutes, photos of Moroyoqui's face and index fingers were digitally scanned into a computer. After his data was matched with federal agencies' criminal databases and everything was cleared, he paid a $6 processing fee and was on his way.

The Homeland Security Department is spending $340 million on the technology, which was launched at Port Huron, Mich., and other border crossings last month.

The screenings are part of a post-Sept. 11 plan to one day ID and record every foreigner who enters and leaves the United States. It has been in place at U.S. airports and seaports for nearly a year.

It will be in the country's 50 busiest land ports by the end of the month and at all 165 land border crossings by the end of next year.

The system is designed to speed processing of those traveling with passports or visas.

Most Mexican visitors entering Arizona's ports carry border crossing cards, or laser visas, stay less than 30 days and remain within a so-called border zone "” in Arizona, within 75 miles of the border. They do not need a visa or passport.

Similarly, most Canadian citizens can enter the United States without a visa or passport.

But Mexicans going farther into the U.S. or staying longer than 30 days must have a specific visa form, which previously had to be processed by hand at a port of entry.

Now, after a computer check compares the scans with visa or passport data on file with the State Department, it is printed automatically.

Since January, more than 350 people nationwide have been apprehended using the system for immigration or criminal violations ranging from manslaughter to fraud, he said.

Gloria Valdez Almeida, of Los Mochis, Mexico, noticed the difference as she headed to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with her niece.

"Today was a lot quicker," she said Monday. Two years ago it took her about a half hour to fill out the application because she said she doesn't write or read well. "Today, this is a lot better," she said.