Port Director Touts Success of Border-Crossing Checkpoint Program

McALLEN, Texas (AP) -- Politicians and business owners along the U.S.-Mexico border met Monday to discuss a new immigration security program, which they say could harm commerce at the busiest shopping time of the year.

Cameron County has requested that implementation of the US-VISIT program be pushed back from Dec. 31 to mid-January to accommodate Three Kings Day on Jan. 6, when many Mexicans exchange holiday gifts.

The program uses high-tech machinery to fingerprint and photograph foreigners requesting visas to travel in the United States. The technology, already in place at air and seaports, is scheduled to be expanded to the 50 busiest U.S. land ports by Dec. 31. Mexicans holding laser visas for short-term stays are exempt, as are Canadian citizens.

US-VISIT Executive Director P.T. Wright told the Border Trade Alliance that the program is speeding up processing at three ports in its first week of testing -- Laredo; Douglas, Ariz; and Port Huron, Mich.

``A large amount of trade is between Christmas and Three Kings Day,'' Cameron County Commissioner John Wood said. ``It's good to hear it's going real fast in Laredo, but to absolve some of the apprehension of Mexican visitors, we're requesting that delay.''

The Border Trade Alliance, which has private and public sector members along the Mexican and Canadian borders, spent the past year urging Washington not to implement a program that might slow border commerce.

Wright said he did not know of the resolution, and hadn't received any formal delay requests from the border region's congressional representatives.

But he said such ideas had been discussed.

``There's a group of us who feel that a delay would show a good sign of good will,'' Wright said. ``But a second group of us feels we're doing such a good job of speeding the process, it would do a disservice.''

Alliance members have been particularly worried about the next phase of the program, which is to create a database of who leaves the country. The fear is Mexicans will be afraid of being caught overstaying their visas and losing their ability to travel to the United States.

Wright said there were no plans yet for exit technology on land borders, and that Mexicans and others would continue turning their visas over by hand as they leave the country.

``Currently the exit solution that is in play is the exit solution we're going to use,'' he said. ``No swipes, no pulling off, no separate reporting.''