Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Biometrics at Sea—closing the revolving door

Excerpt from U.S. Coast Guard “Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council” magazine by CAPT Mark Higgins and LCDR Fair Kim, 7th Coast Guard District.

A Revolving Door
During 2004 and 2005, the Coast Guard interdicted more than 9,000 migrants attempting to illegally enter Puerto Rico from the Dominican Republic—nearly 40 percent of the undocumented migrants intercepted. These migrants were typically repatriated to the Dominican Republic within days of apprehension. In the USCG photo above, this small boat has more than 100 illegal migrants aboard.

The cutters were able to return to their patrols, but many of those interdicted were recidivists. This repeating cycle severely overburdened law enforcement units, provided little incentive for migrants to seek legal immigration avenues, and enabled migrant smugglers to continue to ply their trade.

Without clear consequences, the flow of migrants appeared destined to continue unabated. From a security standpoint, the U.S. did not have a clear idea of exactly who was attempting to penetrate its borders, and whether a would-be migrant was an itinerant worker, deported felon, or terrorist.

Closing the Door
In early 2006, the Coast Guard embarked on an ambitious endeavor to curb these attempts by using biometric equipment at sea to facilitate prosecutions. Biometrics are readily identifiable traits unique to an individual, such as a fingerprint.

This would enable the Coast Guard to track individuals by ascertaining their history of attempted entries into the U.S. and screening each against criminal and immigration databases.

Testing the System
The Coast Guard acquired the biometrics hardware, conducted training, and made other preparations to a prototype cutter. Meanwhile, the service engaged local partner agencies in Puerto Rico including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Office of Investigations, ICE Office of Detention and Removal, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) Office of Field Operations, and Border Patrol. The agencies formed the Caribbean Border Interagency Group to formulate a standard procedure for taking action in response to a biometric “hit” from a Coast Guard interdiction.

In November 2006, USCGC Key Largo got underway with the portable biometrics collection equipment. Within days, the Coast Guard had interdicted three small boats attempting to enter the U.S. with 36 migrants aboard—business as usual in the Mona Pass.

Cutter personnel took biometric scans and a digital photo of each migrant and annotated data packets with information about the interdiction.

Five “Hits”
Five of the migrants had interacted with law enforcement or immigration authorities in the past—four were recidivists, and the fifth migrant’s file revealed a felony drug conviction and previous deportation.

Emboldened by this success, the Coast Guard deployed portable collection units to all five cutters based in San Juan.

Program Successes
From deployment of the Biometrics-at-Sea initiative in November 2006 through the end of 2008, the Coast Guard interdicted 1,986 migrants attempting to enter the United States. Of this group, 459 (more than 23 percent) were recidivist entrants, prior deportees, felons, or otherwise had some derogatory information within the database. As appropriate, these were forwarded for prosecution. In the USCG photo above is a Coast Guard cutter with migrants on deck. The vessel was turned over to local police.

Since the introduction of biometrics, the migrant flow decreased nearly 75 percent.

For more information:
Full article is available at http://www.uscg.mil/proceedings/summer2009.

Subscribe online at http://www.uscg.mil/proceedings/subscribe.asp.