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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 January, 2004, 08:44 GMT
First visitors face US screening

By Daniela Relph
BBC, Washington Dulles airport

The arrivals hall at Dulles International Airport in Washington was the usual mix of expectant families, cab drivers and now - of course - security guards.

But the passengers they were waiting for were a unique bunch.

Flight NH2 from Tokyo was among the first to be put through the new stringent US immigration procedures.

An arriving passenger uses a machine that takes inkless fingerprints, New York's JFK airport
Fingerprints can be checked in a matter of seconds
The system has one clear aim - to enhance the security of the US and protect this county's visitors.

The American Government promised the system would add just a few seconds to the immigration process, and that seemed to be the experience of Flight NH2.

Every passenger on board, who was entering the US with a visa, faced the extra security.

They had their fingerprints and photographs taken. That information was then checked against lists of suspected terrorists.

The new technology allows the checks to take place in a matter of seconds.

Most on the Japanese flight said they had faced few problems and believed the system would make America safer.

But some were irritated at being picked out, describing the whole experience as embarrassing.

Treating the travelling public like criminals will cause an enormous drop in leisure travel
Gerry, Philadelphia, USA

But inconvenience and embarrassment play no part in government thinking on national security.

Brazil reacts

Since 11 September 2001, flying anywhere has changed. Two of the hijackers on that day had entered the US on student visas, but neither ever turned up for college.

The Department of Homeland Security believes the extra immigration checks would have picked up on that discrepancy.

For the American Government there can never be too many checks. Air travel may now be more complex but the US administration is adamant it will not deter visit from heading to the US.

Instead, they believe the very public extra security is a reassurance - an obvious sign that America is looking hard for those who threaten its citizens.

An American citizen has his picture taken by a Brazilian immigration officer, Sao Paulo,  5 January 2004
Brazil has retaliated by screening US visitors
For civil rights groups though, the new security systems are more sinister. Many have accused American officials of creating a surveillance society - of wanting to know too much.

And the Brazilian Government has gone one step further, angry that its citizens entering the US now face fingerprinting and photographing. They have retaliated. Last week Brazil began operating the same security checks on American citizens.

The reaction elsewhere has been less dramatic. There is an acceptance that flying now often means delays, cancellations, extra luggage checks and now extra people checks too.

Washington Dulles airport still bustles with people. The arrivals hall remains filled with anticipation and queues continue to stretch around departures.

But amid the familiarity, air travel to the United States is undergoing a massive change.

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