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A High-Tech Visa May Speed - or Stifle - US-Mexico Crossings

Digitized cards let regular visitors breeze into US. Critics charge they crimp commerce.

Valentn Fuentes Garca straightens his snappy tie and tugs at the lapels of his suit coat as he waits for the flash of the camera at the United States consulate in Ciudad Jurez.

The elderly Mr. Fuentes is one of the millions of mostly border-dwelling Mexicans expected to apply for a new "laser visa" for frequent visitors from Mexico to the United States.

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The US consulate here has been issuing the new visa since April, the first consulate on the border to begin doing so. The new visas, which cost $45, will carry a photo and digitized fingerprints of the bearer, and are designed to cut down on fraud and the proliferation of false documents.

The new visas have met with stiff criticism in both Mexico and the US. Critics say they could reduce border crossings and thus commerce and the area's sense of community. The visas, they say, would be too expensive for some, and others may shy away from offering the information required to get one. To get a new visa, which will be required after September 1999, applicants must prove they have sufficient economic and familial ties to Mexico to ensure that they will return home after visiting the US.

But Fuentes, a cattle rancher and natural-gas developer, sees no problem with the new high-tech card. "Sure, I can remember the old days when you didn't need anything to cross back and forth, but times change," he says. "If this new card offers more security, that's OK with me."

The new laser visa is part of a stepped up, two-pronged US effort, to gain tighter control of the 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico while also facilitating legal trade and communication from one side to the other.

More border-patrol agents, more drug-sniffing dogs and truck scanners, and broad new deportation powers for Immigration and Naturalization Service officers at border stations, are all part of the tightening. The 1996 immigration reform also called for implementation of a new system for electronically documenting every legal visitor to the US by September, but INS officials say the deadline won't be met.

But even as more controversial border fences are being built to stop illegal immigration and smuggling, so are more bridges and new, quick commuter lanes for regular border crossers. They are part of the effort to facilitate legal crossings over the world's busiest border.

"We see it as our job to facilitate traveling across the border for anyone who is qualified for a visa," says Lawrence Kay, consul in Ciudad Jurez. "We want them to get one, so we make this as easy as possible." The consulate has implemented an appointment system that has virtually eliminated the long lines that once formed outside starting at midnight.

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"We aim to get people in and out of here in an hour," says Mr. Kay. The new visa applications have about a 1-in-3 rejection rate.

For border crossers accustomed to waiting an hour or more to cross an international bridge, the new commuter lanes will sound like heaven on Earth. "The objective is to have people into the US in three minutes or less," says Arthur Gonzalez, assistant district director for inspections with the El Paso INS office.

Following a similar dedicated lane in Otay Mesa, Calif., pre-approved commuters from Jurez with a transponder on their car will be allowed to whiz through the new lane. A computer will automatically send 7 percent of all cars to secondary inspection.

INS officials in El Paso say their aim is a border that is friendlier and more fluid, even as it is more secure. To help accomplish all this, the local office has created an innovative Customer Service Roundtable to regularly bring together business leaders, immigrants' rights advocates, and other interested parties from both sides of the border to air complaints and offer suggestions.

"This follows the very basic idea that people won't buy into what we are trying to do unless they are part of the process," says Daniel Kane, a former INS official in El Paso now in Washington to help the agency with its community-relations effort.

Mr. Gonzalez says he knows his agency gets a lot of criticism for rights abuses and other complaints, but he says all complaints are taken seriously. And he adds that, in a district with more than 58 million legal crossings last year, the complaints are actually very few. "People have to remember we live in this community, too," says Gonzalez. "We want the border to work."

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