U.S. Has High-Tech Database Of Captured Migrants

U.S. has high-tech database of captured migrants

By Ruth MorrisSouth
Florida Sun-Sentinel
November 15, 2007

The number of migrants traveling illegally to the United States through a dangerous Caribbean Sea pass has dropped by half, largely because of a high-tech initiative that will expand to South Florida in the spring, Coast Guard officials said Wednesday.

Armed with water-resistant, hand-held scanners, Coast Guard officials patrolling the Mona Pass now collect fingerprints and photographs of migrants they interdict there. Under a new information sharing arrangement with Homeland Security's US-Visit program, the information is then run against a database of criminals, terror suspects and deportees via satellite hookup. Results are available in two to five minutes.

“The biometric processes and increased prosecutions had a significant deterrent effect that directly contributed to the reduction of illegal migration from the Dominican Republic,” said Rear Adm. David Kunkel, commander of the Seventh Coast Guard District, at a Miami news conference.

The biometric program began a year ago and has led to the prosecution of 93 migrants picked up in the Mona Pass a slip of sea often used by people from the Dominican Republic to enter Puerto Rico and then the U.S. mainland, illegally. Charges ranged from human smuggling to trying to re-enter the United States after being deported.

Just knowing the checks are in place has put off smugglers, Kunkel said, contributing to a 50 percent drop in migrant traffic and reducing the risk of drownings and injury.

“The Mona Pass is a treacherous body of water where too many people have died over the years trying to make the journey in overloaded and unseaworthy vessels,” he said.

So far, the Coast Guard has taken biometric data for 1,285 interdicted migrants, running it against a database of identifying information for some 3.2 million men and women. The checks have produced matches in 270 cases, including migrants making a second or third attempt at the pass, and others with criminal backgrounds.

The Coast Guard spent $1.4 million to develop the biometrics program and plans to begin using the same fingerprint devices on cutters patrolling off South Florida in the spring. That move will apply the technology to other migrant routes through the Bahamas and direct crossings from Cuba.

US-Visit director Robert Mocny said biometric data gathering would expand as an enforcement tool. In another pilot program, his office is providing information on immigration violators to three police departments in Texas and Massachusetts. That information sharing applies only when the person in question has already been booked by police.

“These people were trying to hide behind a veil of anonymity,” Mocny said of migrants picked up in the Mona Pass. “Biometrics is the way of the future.”

While the immigration debate has largely focused on shoring up the U.S.-Mexico border, Coast Guard officials say ocean access is sometimes overlooked. The flow of human smuggling hit a four-year high in fiscal 2007.

“That trend continues even through the month of October,” said Rear Adm. Wayne Justice, director of response policy for the Coast Guard. “Our maritime borders are the most porous.”

Ruth Morris can be reached at rmorris@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5012.