MANILA, January 7, 2004 (STAR) By Marvin Sy - Starting in April, all visa applicants to the United States will be required to undergo a biometric data collecting process as part of the new measures implemented by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the US Embassy announced yesterday.

The new process is part of the US Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program which the DHS is implementing to strengthen security at US ports of entry.

Chris Rowan, head of the US Embassy’s non-immigrant visa section, said almost all visa applicants will be required to provide their fingerprints and pose for digital photographs.

Rowan said only officials and representatives of the government and international organizations, children under the age of 14 and adults over the age of 79 will be exempted from the rule.

But even if officials and representatives of the government and international organizations hold official or diplomatic passports, they will have to undergo the new procedures if they are to apply for tourist visas.

Rowan said applicants will initially be required to have their two index fingers scanned by an inkless digital finger scanner but the embassy will eventually scan eight fingers.

He said the new security measure will not entail additional costs to applicants aside from the $100 visa application fee that the embassy already charges.

The DHS noted that the US-VISIT program actually adds a layer of privacy for visitors by protecting them from identity theft as a result of lost or stolen travel documents.

US-VISIT was officially implemented starting yesterday at 115 airports and 14 seaports all over the US.

Under the program, travelers arriving in US airports and seaports will be required to provide their fingerprints and pose for digital photographs employing biometric methods to establish their identities.

The DHS said there is no reason to be concerned about possible delays on the part of the travelers due to the new program as it ensured that the entire process takes only 15 seconds to one minute to be completed.

The digital fingerscans will be cross-checked against a database of known and suspected terrorists and criminals.

The process has actually been in use at the Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia since Nov. 17. More than 20,000 individuals have undergone the process.

The dry run weeded out 21 individuals who were on the criminal watch list of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The same procedures will be used for travelers leaving the US to confirm their identities, document their compliance with the terms of their visas and record their status for future visits to the US.

There are now around 50 US visa-issuing posts that are already collecting biometric data from visa applicants and the US government plans to institute biometric data collection in all its 211 visa-issuing posts by October.

The DHS also announced that all 165 land ports will also be implementing the US-VISIT program by end-2005.

The 27 visa waiver countries are also exempted from the US-VISIT program at this time.

DHS Secretary Tom Ridge said that the process is "easy for travelers to use but hard for terrorists to avoid."

"With the launch of US-VISIT, our doors remain open to those who love America, open to those who seek opportunity and open to our economic partners around the world. And yet it pulls the welcome mat from terrorists and all those who seek this nation and its people harm," Ridge added.

Last week, the US government also required armed marshals to be on board all international flights to or passing through the US and warned that it would prevent uncooperative flights from entering US airspace.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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