When federal officials began fingerprinting foreign travelers at the nation’s airports two years ago, they expected to see a dramatic increase in the number of people caught trying to enter the country illegally.

Two years later, it appears the exact opposite happened.

The number of foreigners barred from entering the United States dropped 32 percent at U.S. airports following the overhaul of the inspections process, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security statistics.

The statistics, obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, offer the first glimpse of how the changes affect foreigners arriving at the nation’s airports.

But exactly what the figures mean is a matter of intense dispute.

DHS officials cite the numbers as hard evidence that criminals and illegal immigrants are steering clear of airports, either by trying to enter the U.S. across land borders, or simply staying home.

“Folks are going to realize, “Oh, you can’t just walk through,”‘ said Kelly Klundt, spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, in Washington, D.C. “It is certainly a deterrent.”

Critics, however, say the drop in rejections shows new security measures established after the 9/11 attacks are allowing more people into the country who previously would have been rejected.

Unions representing immigration inspectors say a merger of the nation’s customs and immigration agencies that took place months before the launch of the new fingerprint program has resulted in an inspections process that fails to catch many illegal immigrants.

As part of the merger, thousands of former U.S. Customs officers were retrained to check passengers’ immigration documents. And new hires were cross-trained in immigration and customs duties.

Neither group, according to unions representing longtime immigration inspectors, is as adept at catching immigration violators as their predecessors.

“Those people who would otherwise be turned around or looked at more closely are given “see ya’ and sent down the road,” said Jim Bonnette, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 2149, the union that represents immigration inspectors at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J. “We are less secure than we were before.”

CBP officials say the changes have not affected security, but earlier this month they announced a partial return to the old system with the creation of a new class of officer who will handle only immigration cases in which a question over a foreigner’s papers has arisen.

“We are moving back toward specialization,” said CBP spokeswoman Lucille Cirillo.

Last year, 35,188 of the 80.6 million international arrivals at U.S. airports – about four tenths of 1 percent – were denied admission and sent home, a category inspectors call “turnarounds.”

That’s one-third less than the 52,051 who were turned back in 2003, despite a steady increase in the overall number of arrivals, according to the DHS statistics obtained by The Star-Ledger newspaper of Newark.

Statistics for the first six months of 2006 were unavailable, officials said.

Deborah Myers, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, has studied the inspections overhaul and said both sides may be right in their interpretation of the numbers.

“Known criminals, people who know they have records, probably are reducing their travel to the U.S. – at least through legal points of entry,” Myers said.

But Myers has also found “widespread concern about the lack of immigration expertise, both at headquarters and in the field” at the Department of Homeland Security.

Among the chief concerns, Myers found that officers focused on catching terrorists and criminals and paid less attention to whether a person was planning to overstay a visa and immigrate illegally.

(OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS)

For years, airport inspections had been carried out by inspectors from three federal agencies.

Inspectors working for the Immigration and Naturalization Service checked passports and conducted interviews. U.S. Customs agents, employed by the Department of Treasury, inspected luggage and cargo. And inspectors from the Department of Agriculture watched for pests and diseases carried on food and farm products.

In September 2003, a year after the INS was disbanded, the 18,000 inspectors from the INS, Customs and USDA were merged into a single workforce with new uniforms and the new title of CBP officer.

Only agriculture inspectors remained in specialized jobs. And CBP began training about 2,000 newly hired agents in all three types of inspections.

The problem, the immigration officers union contends, is that inspectors now receive far less specialized training.

In years past, INS inspectors received 18 weeks of training in immigration inspections, Bonnette said. Customs officers received 12 weeks in their specialty. The new hires, officials said, are trained in 71 days, or slightly more than 12 weeks, to do both jobs.

Charles Showalter, a former immigration inspector and president of the National Security Council of the American Federation of Government Employees, said, “It’s been absolutely obvious” that the merger resulted in a drop-off of violators being caught.

“It’s like taking a podiatrist and trying make him a brain surgeon,” Showalter said.

There were other changes as well.

In January 2004, DHS launched U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, or US-VISIT, requiring non-U.S. citizens to submit to electronic fingerprint scans as they passed through inspection.

Those fingerprints are instantly checked against terrorist watch lists, and against FBI and immigration databases, to make sure the traveler is legally admissible.

“It is not possible to know how many terrorists or criminals have been frightened away from attempting to enter our country because of US-VISIT, but I have no doubt the number is substantial,” said Stewart Verdery Jr., a former assistant secretary for Border and Transportation Security with DHS, testifying before Congress last year.

Union officials, however, fear inspectors are relying too much on the system’s red or green light to tell whether a person is admissible, instead of using interview techniques and a deep knowledge of immigration law.

Citing examples from his own career, Showalter said if a non-U.S. citizen presented a Japanese passport, he used his rudimentary Japanese skills to ask several questions and make sure the person was actually from Japan. If people presented student visas, he asked them about their field of study.

“I guarantee,” Showalter said, that most turnarounds happen “because of the officer’s skill, training and experience as opposed to US-VISIT popping up a hit.”

Stephen Weeks, president of AFGE Local 1917, which represents former INS inspectors now working for CBP at John F. Kennedy International Airport, agreed.

“Most people, they are saying, “I swiped (the passport) and yeah I got a green light; the person was good,” said Weeks.

CBP officials indicated earlier this month they are moving back toward the model they had abandoned two years ago, with separate inspectors handling customs and immigration duties.

RB END DONOHUE

(Brian Donohue covers immigration issues for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He can be contacted at bdonohue(at)starledger.com.)

AP-NY-07-22-06 1851EDT


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