ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge conducted the first of seven town hall-style meetings across the country Wednesday, seeking Americans' ideas and concerns while defending the Bush administration's response to terrorism.

Ridge championed the progress his department has made so far and defended the Patriot Act, which expanded the powers of government law enforcement in the name of combatting terrorism.

``Even today, we are not safe in this country,'' Ridge said. ``The threat is real. There are difficult decisions we make every day and we try to communicate that so you are informed rather than fearful. When we reduce the anxiety level of the country, the better prepared we are.''

The tour is reminiscent of Attorney General John Ashcroft's recent 16-city tour to defend the Patriot Act as an essential part of the fight against terrorism. But Ridge said he is conducting his tour, sponsored by the nonpartisan Council for Excellence in Government, primarily to hear Americans' views.

Members of Wednesday's crowd of about 300 in St. Louis voiced concerns about privacy rights, immigration restrictions and preparedness in case of terrorist attacks on the water supply, agriculture or public gatherings.

Saint Louis University student Daniel Szyman, 22, of Hazelwood, questioned why immigrants would want to come to the United States when he said hassles and registration await them.

``They're trying to make me scared of Arab people in America, and I don't think it's right,'' Szyman said.

Ridge responded that immigration to the United States was higher in the year following Sept. 11 than in the year before and noted that the Patriot Act has held up in court.

State and local officials at the meeting said improvements in communication systems have helped them respond better to emergencies, but added that they need more federal money.

``The long-term solution is very difficult and very costly,'' Missouri Homeland Security Director Tim Daniel said. He said the state needed $100 million each of the next six years to spend on hospitals, emergency responders and incentives for the private sector to protect its holdings.

Ridge's other town hall meetings are planned in Miami, San Diego, Houston, Seattle, Rochester, N.Y., and Lexington, Ky.

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On the Net:

Department of Homeland Security: http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/

Council for Excellence in Government: http://www.excelgov.org/