Ridge: U.S. Improving Visa Policies to Welcome Foreigners

HONOLULU (AP) -- Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Monday that the United States has its ``welcome mat'' out to foreigners and is improving the visa process and expediting background checks to enter the country.

"I assure you that our goal is to have secure borders, but at the same time have open doors and the welcome mat out for people around the world,'' he said. ``That's who we are and who we want to be. And we've done that and I think you'll be able to see some changes in the future.''

Ridge's comments came during a speech to nearly 1,000 military, government and business leaders from 41 countries at the second annual Asia-Pacific Homeland Security Summit in Waikiki.

"After 9-11, we made some adjustments that were appropriately and predictably heavy on security,'' he said after the speech. ``We've gone back as an administration and we made some improvements.''

Some recent changes have resulted in a rebound in the number of international college students entering the United States after a sharp drop after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said.

"We're proud of our 228-year history as being a nation of immigrants,'' he said. ``We have been, we are _ and if we're true to our past _ that must be a part of our future as well.''

Gov. Linda Lingle opened the conference and introduced Ridge.

"The countries that have gathered in Hawaii for the summit are different in many ways, but we also have much in common,'' she said. ``We all share a love of freedom and we are all determined to win the global war on terror.''

During his 45-minute speech, Ridge spoke about the importance of international cooperation and response against the ``global scourge'' of terrorism.

"We must build bridges to each other and build barriers to terrorists,'' he said. ``We must share resources, strategies and technology. We must engage every nation that values freedom if we are to defeat the shadowed soldiers of terror.''

Ridge also pushed the use of biometrics information, such as fingerprinting, to identify and process travelers.

"At the same time we use biometrics to combat terrorism, we would also use that kind of information to combat drug runners, multinational criminals and those who traffic human beings,'' Ridge said.

On Monday, foreigners entering the United States in three cities were fingerprinted, photographed and subjected to background checks in a test of a program that will eventually be extended to every land border crossing nationwide.

The screenings have been in place at U.S. airports and seaports for nearly a year.

"Biometrics is proving to be a very valuable and useful security tool allowing us to accurately identify and crosscheck travelers and potential terrorists before they enter our country,'' Ridge said.

The information gathered will be stored in a national database, but Homeland Security officials promised its use would be restricted to ensure privacy. By the end of 2005, the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, or US-VISIT, is scheduled to be used at all 165 land border crossings.

Critics of the program have said the fingerprinting is an overreaction by government, causes additional delays for travelers and violates passengers' privacy rights.

"Let me say very, very clearly, the United States is particularly sensitive to the historical, constitutional and cultural differences among nations,'' Ridge said.

Talking to reporters, Ridge said terrorism is ``much broader'' than one enemy.

"I think it is a mistake to put the threat of international terrorism in a narrowly defined box and say the leader that you're worried about is bin Laden and the organization you're worried about is al Qaida,'' he said. ``There are many bin Laden-like figures and al Qaida-like organizations that exist.''

Meanwhile, Ridge declined to say whether he would resign from President Bush's Cabinet. Secretary of State Colin Powell and five others announced on Monday they were stepping down and would not be a part of the president's second term, which begins with his Jan. 20 inauguration. But Ridge did say he has not submitted a letter of resignation.

"The couple elements of this decision are if and when,'' Ridge said. ``And when those decisions are made, I'd prefer to share it with the president first.''

He also praised Powell's work.

"I view this as an individual who served his country well with great honor and great distinction for decades and decades and decades,'' Ridge said. "I'm sure the president accepts his resignation with regret. He made an extraordinary contribution to the safety and security of the country, not only as a soldier, but also as a statesman.''