Coast Guard biometrics put brakes on illegal immigration

Biometric screening backed by interagency cooperation helps deter migrants from risking a perilous two-day sea crossing from the Dominican coast to Puerto Rico

Lt. Brian Betz, commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Key Largo, focuses his binoculars on a small craft a mile off the port side of his 110-foot island-class patrol boat as it navigates the choppy waters of the Mona Passage, the dangerous strait between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Betz, the Coast Guard's most experienced captain in these waters, is satisfied: The boat anchored just off Desecheo Island about 10 miles from Puerto Rico's west coast belongs to a recreational scuba-diving outfit based in Mayagüez. He orders a change in course to nose the Key Largo into the swells and prepares his crew for one of their frequent interdiction drills.

Turnover among his 16-member crew requires constant training of boarding-party procedures to ensure efficiency and safety on the front lines of what appears to be a highly successful program to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and contraband into United States territory.

A combination of tougher policies, new biometric technology and groundbreaking interagency cooperation have helped slash the number of migrants from the Dominican Republic interdicted by the Coast Guard in the Mona Passage — from 5,014 in 2004 to 727 in 2009. The procedures have been extended to the Florida Straits, and with additional funding, they could be deployed elsewhere.

Coast Guard officials have long been able to thwart many people’s attempts to enter the country illegally, but such interdictions have been a blunt-edged instrument that treated all migrants the same by simply sending them back home. Now in the Mona Passage, shipboard fingerprint scanners linked via satellite to homeland security databases allow officers to identify repeat offenders and others wanted for more serious crimes and respond accordingly.

There is no counting the number of lives saved by the program's success in deterring Dominicans and a smaller number of people from Cuba, Haiti and elsewhere from risking a perilous two-day crossing of the 80-mile-wide passage, which often extends to a voyage of 100 or more miles from embarkation sites on the northeast Dominican coast.

Looking back on his 2001 tour, Betz said he often saw the same people interdicted because the U.S. policy was to catch and release them back to the Dominican Republic, a frustrating process. "But now, that's all changed," he added.

The difference is a product of the introduction of the high-tech Biometrics at Sea System, more sophisticated night-vision patrol aircraft, and thorough coordination among federal, Puerto Rican and Dominican agencies.

Another key component is the willingness of Rosa Rodriguez-Velez, the U.S. attorney for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, to prosecute repeat offenders. First to run afoul of the new policy in 2006 were the helmsmen of yolas, the often dangerously overcrowded and crudely made smuggler boats propelled by outboard motors. Most of them have chosen other lines of work after spending time in jail or hearing about the prosecution of fellow boatmen.

Sea interdiction planning begins every morning with a 7:30 a.m. conference call among officials from the Caribbean Border Interagency Group, which includes Coast Guard sea-based assets in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and air assets at the former Ramey Air Force Base in Aguadilla; the Homeland Security Department's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency and Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Aguadilla; the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Juan; and Puerto Rican law enforcement.

Aircraft are often the first to detect suspected smugglers in the Mona Passage. They relay the smugglers' positions to a cutter, so the Coast Guard tries to have at least one cutter in the Mona at all times. Intercepts are made as far out at sea as possible to prevent yola helmsmen from making a desperate dash for land.

Machinery Technician 1st Class Miguel Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico and experienced hand at interdictions, explained how the procedure works in an interview aboard the Key Largo. Yola helmsmen usually heave to when ordered to stop because they face as much as two years in prison if they fail to cooperate. Approaching the yola in a rigid inflatable boat, a Spanish-speaking Coast Guardsman asks the passengers if they want to go aboard the cutter.

"They always say 'yes' unless they're close to shore and try to make a run for it," Rodriguez said. "They're usually hungry and dehydrated and glad to be rescued."

And they've likely been bailing their leaky yola from the minute they left the Dominican Republic. The open boats, which usually carry 30 to 50 passengers but are sometimes loaded with more than 100, provide no protection from the intense tropical sun. Yolas are designed for one-way passage but often fail to make even that in the rough Mona seas.

The most dangerous part of the interdiction is keeping passengers from rushing the rescue boat, overloading one side of the yola and causing it to capsize. Passengers are shuttled to the cutter in the inflatable boat, which runs along the starboard side, hooks onto the cutter and is kept ready to break away if there is any sign of trouble with off-loading.

"We're polite but not too friendly," Rodriguez said. "If there's an immediate medical problem, we deal with it. Otherwise, we promise them food and water — after we do the biometrics."

Positive Identification

Coast Guardsmen use a handheld device to record two fingerprints and a digital camera to take a photo of each passenger. That information is uploaded via satellite link into DHS' Automated Biometric Identification System database. The file has nearly a million entries and includes biometric data on people who are under deportation orders, those convicted of aggravated felonies and individuals on terrorist watch lists.

Lt. Cmdr. Francis DelRosso at the Coast Guard's Office of Law Enforcement said a database search typically returns a match 25 percent of the time — for anything from a repeat entry attempt to something more serious, such as an outstanding arrest warrant. Such hits are investigated by Border Patrol agents stationed at their facility in Aguadillo, and officials decide whether a suspect warrants referral to Rodriguez, who has conducted more than 350 criminal prosecutions of suspects picked up in the Mona.

Some referrals are an easy call, such as the more than 60 men convicted of aggravated felonies and one who escaped from the United States while facing a murder charge. Dominicans trying to sneak into Puerto Rico for the first time, usually seeking work, are returned to the Dominican Republic but no longer with a free pass. Their information is added to the database, and they can be prosecuted if they're caught making a second attempt. They'll also be barred from legal entry to the United States for at least five years, a useful determent to anyone contemplating a yola attempt.

Decisions made ashore regarding prosecution are radioed to the cutter, which will anchor a few miles from the U.S. Customs port in Mayagüez. Cutters stay far enough offshore to discourage anyone from jumping overboard and avoid possible legal complications, including the right to asylum for any Cuban who reaches U.S. soil. People facing prosecution are off-loaded from the cutter to a Border Patrol vessel at Mayagüez and taken to the detention center at Aguadilla for processing. The cutter returns other passengers to La Romana in the Dominican Republic, which has an agreement with the U.S. to repatriate people intercepted in the Mona.

Although the program is considered a success, Capt. Joanna Nunan, deputy commander of the Coast Guard's San Juan sector, said interdiction coordination requires constant attention. Although interdictions have declined dramatically, undetected crossings continue. Therefore, U.S. Border Patrol agents based at Aguadilla use all-terrain vehicles to continue daily patrols along popular landing spots on Puerto Rico's west coast.

In addition to the law enforcement aspect, the success of the Mona effort is also because of a publicity campaign in the Dominican Republic, where the U.S. embassy helps publicize successful interdictions and the dangers and consequences faced by those who attempt a passage. Ironically, the Coast Guard is sometimes notified of a yola crossing attempt by the relatives or friends of passengers. They will call and ask for an air and sea search two or three days after a departure if they do not get a safe-arrival phone call from Puerto Rico.

Future Improvements

The Coast Guard recently conducted a field study to evaluate portable devices that would enable officials to quickly record full sets of fingerprints, rather than the two they collect now. Using complete sets of fingerprints would allow the Coast Guard to tap into more law enforcement databases, such as the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

Cmdr. Pat DiBari, chief of command, control and operational information systems at the Coast Guard, said 10-point fingerprints provide greater identification reliability than the two-print system. However, the Coast Guard's budget does not provide funding for deploying such an expanded system.

Which databases the Coast Guard can tap are governed by DHS' memorandums of understanding with the State, Justice and Defense departments. To make full use of a 10-point fingerprint system, it would likely be necessary to revise those agreements.

Such decisions are a logical outgrowth of the government's innovative approach to keeping the Mona Passage safe.

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