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Foreigners at airports face fingerprinting

Along with photos, goal is to identify who comes, goes

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NEWARK, N.J. — Laetitia Bohn walked into Newark Liberty International Airport here on Thursday, dazed and sleepy after an eight-hour flight from Paris, and was jolted from her reverie when a U.S. immigration officer asked for her photograph and fingerprints along with her passport.

The officer took a digital scan of her left index finger, then her right, and then snapped her picture with a tiny camera. The entire process took only a few seconds, but for Bohn, a 29-year-old tourist from France, it was an unnerving symbol of how much the United States had changed since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"It made me feel kind of guilty, like a prisoner," Bohn said. "You can feel the difference since 9/11. I was in New York seven years ago, and people were happy to have visitors. I don't think it's the case anymore."

And so the day went — with a click of a camera and sharply conflicting emotions as foreign visitors across the country arrived at America's airports where officials for the first time began photographing and electronically fingerprinting travelers from 27 industrialized nations, including longtime allies like Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Japan and Australia.

The policy shift, which was announced in April and took effect on Thursday, will affect about 13 million visitors each year from 22 European countries as well as Brunei, Singapore, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, who can currently travel to the United States for up to 90 days without a visa. The change was made after intelligence reports indicated that terrorists might take advantage of that provision, which allows travelers from Europe and other industrialized countries to travel to the United States with little scrutiny.

Until now, only travelers who needed visas to visit the United States were fingerprinted and photographed at U.S. airports in a program started in January to ensure that suspected terrorists, criminals and violators of immigration law do not enter the country. The program, which is now expected to screen about 20 million foreign visitors at 115 airports and 14 seaports annually, is the latest security measure to affect foreign visitors since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Last year, U.S. embassies and consulates around the world began collecting digital fingerprints from foreigners applying for visas.

And beginning this fall, officials will require overseas visitors at selected airports and seaports to be fingerprinted and photographed before they leave the United States to monitor whether visitors are in fact returning to their home countries.

Airline and airport officials were bracing for longer lines on Thursday. But customs officials, who surveyed about 20 airports on Thursday afternoon, said that only 40 of the 1,500 flights reported slower than normal waiting times attributed to the new procedures.

Officials noted, however, that September is typically a slow month for overseas arrivals and Thursday is typically a quiet travel day. They said the full impact of the security measures would only be visible in coming weeks and months.