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Press Office

U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Press Release January 5, 2004
Contact: 202-282-8010

PREPARED REMARKS BY SECRETARY TOM RIDGE AT THE US-VISIT ANNOUNCEMENT AT THE ATLANTA HARTSFIELD-JACKSON AIRPORT

ATLANTA, GA - Good morning, it is a pleasure to be here at Atlanta International Airport to announce the launch of US-VISIT, the important new technology that you just saw demonstrated.

US-VISIT will help secure our borders and speed the entry of legitimate travelers at airports and seaports around the country.

As many of you might know, the site of this airport was originally a motor speedway. While today’s NASCAR fans might argue with me, it is clear that Mayor William Hartsfield brought the future to Atlanta when he encouraged the city to convert the little used racetrack into an airport back in 1925.

Today, this has become the busiest passenger airport in the world. More than 5 million of those passengers arrive in Atlanta from abroad, on airlines from Air Canada to South African Airways.

They come to the United States to visit family, to conduct business, and in many cases – to live the American Dream. It is a dream built by a nation of immigrants on a foundation of equality and opportunity for all.

That is why we welcome visitors of every variety – students, tourists, and businesspeople from Andorra to Zimbabwe.

Unfortunately, some people have sought to take advantage of our open arms and welcoming shores – so we must continue to protect our citizens and visitors from those who wish us harm.

Today, I am proud to launch US-VISIT, a new national program to help secure our borders and facilitate legitimate travel and trade.

US-VISIT will allow Customs and Border Protection Officers to focus on “at-risk” travelers, while speeding the entry of everyone else. At the same time, the program will protect the integrity of our immigration system by confirming a visitor’s identity and ensuring that they adhere to visa policies.

The program has been tested right here in Atlanta for several weeks – and it has been a success.

While processing more than 20,000 travelers during that time, US-VISIT has matched 21 hits on the FBI’s criminal watch list – including potential entrants with previous convictions for statutory rape, dangerous drugs, aggravated felonies, and several cases of visa fraud.

Starting today, we are introducing this critical new technology at 115 airports across the country, as well as in cruise ship terminals at 14 U.S. seaports. It is part of a comprehensive program to ensure that our borders remain open to visitors, but closed to terrorists.

For the first time, we will be collecting biometric data on travelers arriving in and departing from the United States on a visa.

In addition to the entry procedures already in place and familiar to international travelers, Customs and Border Protection Officers will now capture an inkless digital fingerprint – or “fingerscan” – as well as a digital photograph to be matched against information gathered at visa-issuing posts overseas.

As you saw in the demonstration, it’s easy for travelers to use, but hard for terrorists to avoid – and takes just a couple of seconds.

In fact, during the pilot test here in Atlanta only 15 seconds were added to processing times, bringing the total entry procedure to just more than one minute.

However, in that small amount of time we are adding an important layer of security.

Legitimate travelers who fall into America’s open arms should know that they have nothing to fear in this new system. Information gathered will be kept strictly to authorized officials on a need-to-know basis and will be governed by the Privacy Act at all times.

In fact, US-VISIT actually adds a layer of privacy for visitors by protecting them from identity theft, or lost or stolen travel documents.

However, US-VISIT will not be kind to those who think that privacy can hide their hate or their intention to harm.

It is only the smallest fraction of visitors to our country that may be involved in terrorism, but our job at the Department of Homeland Security is to be sure they are stopped. Obviously, one of the best ways is to prevent them from entering in the first place.

US-VISIT will ensure that we not only protect the homeland, but preserve the qualities that define our great country. We will rely on new technology and the reliable standard of professionalism from Customs and Border Protection Officers to keep America’s doors open and our nation more secure.

America has been – and always will be – a welcoming country. But we will also always be on guard – watchful for the signs of potential acts of terrorism. In a post 9-11 world, we have been forced to find new ways to confront new challenges.

We have met every challenge we have faced, and done so with cautious respect for the elements that make our country worth protecting – civil liberties, democracy, and above all, freedom.

Today’s announcement is no different. We have carefully addressed the mandate to secure our borders and maintain the open doors that strengthen the fabric of our society.

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.

Let there be no doubt – this is a great step forward in the preservation of our security – yet another protective measure that better secures our citizens, better speeds the process for visitors, and further helps us preserve a country that has, must and always will be – safe and free.

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