The Mona Passage is a strip of ocean between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. It’s a popular point for Dominicans to try and cross to get to the nearby U.S. territory. And now, biometrics, satellites and US VISIT are helping secure the waters.
The U.S. Coast Guard patrols the passage and attempts to interdict any immigrants trying to gain entry into Puerto Rico. Before November 2006, the Coast Guard didn’t have a way to properly identify those on the boats, relying on information from the passengers. “Most immigrants didn’t give us the correct biographical information,” says Lt. John Fiorentine, a cutter commander for the Coast Guard based in San Juan. “They knew we were looking for people with criminal records and they would give us false information.”
With no way to confirm the identity of the immigrants, they were returned to the Dominican Republic without being charged with a crime and free to try to cross the pass once again. Coast Guard officers became frustrated after recognizing the same immigrants trying to make the crossing multiple times, but they had no way of proving that they had attempted to make the journey before. “They would just say it was their brother or cousin before,” says Robert Mocny, director of the US VISIT program at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The Coast Guard had heard about the US VISIT program, an initiative that screens visitors to the U.S., and was interested to see if it could work at sea. In November 2006 the agency started using a ruggedized, handheld biometric scanner to collect biometric information from immigrants they interdicted at sea. Officers took digital photos of the immigrants as well as images of both index fingerprints.
The process was a little rough at first, says Mocny. There wasn’t a good way for the ship to communicate with Homeland Security. Initially US VISIT provided an extract of its fingerprint database that was loaded on to laptops to the Coast Guard. But the extract wasn’t enough and synching up the information with the main database was problematic.
Officials started looking at satellite technology to communicate back and forth and found that solution worked best, Mocny says.
After the immigrants’ boat is caught they are brought onto the cutter where fingerprints, photo and biographical information are collected using the handheld device, says Fiorentine. This information is then placed onto a secure USB token, loaded on a laptop and sent via satellite to Homeland Security to be checked against the US VISIT database.
It takes about two minutes for each individual’s biometric and biographical information to travel from the cutter to the database, Mocny says. There typically are an average of 35 immigrants per boatload, but this number has been as high as 98, Fiorentine says.
Within 30 to 40 minutes officers on the ship will receive an email response from Homeland Security. One email is to confirm that they received the information and the second confirming whether the fingerprints were a hit or no hit against the database. Immigrants caught trying to cross the passage for the first time are registered in the system, Fiorentine says.
If the cutter gets notified of a hit, officers use a situational tool, which is similar to what Customs and Border Protection officers use at airports and land border crossings, Fiorentine says. This tool brings up the immigrants’ history, previous interaction with border officials and any potential criminal past.
If the immigrant has been caught trying to cross the passage before or has outstanding warrants, the Coast Guard consults with Homeland Security and the U.S. Attorney General’s office to decide whether or not to pursue charges. The most common charge is attempted illegal entry, which is a misdemeanor. There are 125 cases that either have been prosecuted or are in the process of being prosecuted because of the system.
The biometric system has also identified criminals with outstanding warrants for armed robbery, kidnapping and other felonies, Fiorentine says. Between November 2006 and December 2007, the biometric system had helped catch 24 aggravated felons and 57 previous deportees. “Some of these people are pretty bad,” he says. “People we never would have known had criminal histories if it wasn’t for the biometric.”
Since the system was put in place, the number of boats interdicted has decreased, Fiorentine says. But he doesn’t credit that entirely to the biometric system. “There are many factors that contribute to illegal immigration, from the economic status, the weather and additional enforcement by the Dominican Navy,” he says.
Mocny says the new system has had an impact. “Once people realize that if they get caught more than a couple of times, they’ll get prosecuted, it makes a big dent in the number of people trying to make the trip,” he says.
While US VISIT is making the transition from two prints to ten prints at airports, the Coast Guard doesn’t have plans to make the change on its boats, Fiorentine says.
The biometric-at-sea program is expanding outside the Mona Passage to the Florida Strait, Mocny says. Other border control agencies within Homeland Security are also reviewing Coast Guard’s progress with the new system and seeing if they can adapt it for their own needs.