Agency Award'Coast Guard and DHS | A touch of a finger stems the tide

2007 GCN Award: Coast Guard links biometric handhelds with US-VISIT database to slow the flow of illegal immigrants

WHAT: The Coast Guard and the Homeland Security Department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program.

MISSION: Bring mobile biometric identification capabilities to Coast Guard ships in the Mona Passage near Purto Rico and connect remotely to US-VISIT's fingerprint database.

CHALLENGE: The Coast Guard had no way of knowing whether undocumented migrants had criminal records, so the migrants were simply repatriated, only to reappear multiple times.

SOLUTION: The Coast Guard collects fingerprints and photographs from each migrant using handheld scanners that can withstand adverse weather conditions and the constant movement of the ship. The data is sent to US-VISIT via e-mail, where it is compared with all of the records in the US-VISIT database. The results are returned within two minutes.

IMPACT: Migrants with criminal histories are being detained and prosecuted instead of repeatedly shuttled back to their native countries. Based on the fingerprints collected to date, 9 percent of the fingerprint matches to US-VISIT's database are convicted felons, and 20 percent have orders of deportation barring them from entering the United States. What's more, interdictions in the Mona Passage are down 50 percent in 2007 compared to the year-to-date in 2006.

COST: The Coast Guard spent $1.4 million from August 2005, when the requirements study was begun, to May, when Phase II, satellite communications, was implemended.

BACK HOME: US-VISIT staff members provide data to the Coast Guard.

Zaid Hamid

U.S. Coast Guard cutters make expensive ferries. But they were frequently used as such to transport interdicted illegal immigrants back to their home countries.
The cutters in question patrol the Mona Passage, the body of water between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, where large numbers of migrants from the Dominican Republic attempt to enter the United States.

For the complete list of the 2007 GCN Award winners, click here


Without an identification system on the ships, the Coast Guard had no way to identify anyone who might have been wanted on criminal charges or suspicions of terrorism and had no choice but to simply take the undocumented migrants back to the Dominican Republic. The lack of an identification system also gave the migrants no reason not to try again, so they would reappear in the Mona Passage later, often multiple times.

'The Coast Guard became a shuttle service for these people,' said Robert Mocny, director of the Homeland Security Department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program. But that was before the Biometrics-at-Sea pilot program was implemented.

The problem was no small matter.

'Roughly 40 percent of the undocumented migrants interdicted by the Coast Guard in fiscal year 2004 tried to enter the U.S. by sea through the Mona Passage,' said Coast Guard Lt. Walter Chubrick.

One reason for the large number of attempts was a lack of deterrence because of the difficulty of prosecuting lawbreakers when there was no way to positively link them to criminal records.

The Coast Guard decided to capture fingerprints and take photos of the migrants, and it also wanted to be able to check their identities against criminal records.

Stormy seas

The initial challenge the Coast Guard faced was on the front end. The service would need to use sensitive electronic equipment in an outdoor environment where it would be exposed to extreme temperatures, humidity, sea spray and constant movement.

The solution came from Identix, which built a ruggedized biometric data capture device around a Hewlett-Packard iPaq personal digital assistant. The PDA is housed in a rugged plastic case that includes a fingerprint scanner and a camera. Identix assembled all the components, including its proprietary fingerprint capture software. Identix also worked with the Coast Guard to tailor the software to the agency's needs.

The Coast Guard takes a photograph of each migrant and collects two fingerprints, one from each index finger. If an index finger is missing or damaged, an alternate finger is used.

The Coast Guard does not collect biometric information from migrants who provide documentation verifying their status within the United States.

Once the data collection problem was solved, the Coast Guard needed a system that would allow it to store the captured data and compare it to existing criminal records. The agency approached officials who run US-VISIT, which collects fingerprints from all visitors ' with limited exemptions ' to the United States who hold nonimmigrant visas.

The two agencies then had to figure out how to connect
US-VISIT's Automated Biometric Identification System (Ident) with computers on ships at sea. The Ident system includes information about wanted criminals, immigration violators and those who have previously encountered government authorities.

'All of the US-VISIT data is connected via hardware or cell communications, but you don't have cell towers in the middle of the ocean,' Mocny said.

The agencies developed a plan to begin the program using stand-alone laptop PCs containing extracted US-VISIT data.

Biometrics-at-Sea was implemented in November 2006 with laptops loaded with US-VISIT data from four categories: known and suspected terrorists, persons convicted of aggravated felonies, previous deportees, and recidivists from Caribbean countries near the Mona Passage.

In May, Phase II began. The Coast Guard installed satellite technology on several cutters, which gave the agency access to all 90 million fingerprints in the Ident database.

The program is now in place on five cutters. Biometric and biographic data from the migrants is transferred to laptops on the ships and stored in encrypted files, which are then sent to US-VISIT as e-mail attachments. The information is automatically erased from the handheld scanners when it is transferred to the laptop.

Results are returned quickly. 'It takes only two minutes to search all of US-VISIT's records,' Chubrick said.

Thomas Amerson, project lead for Biometrics-at-Sea at the Coast Guard Research and Development Center in Groton, Conn., described what happens during those two minutes.

'US-VISIT wrote software that opens the file, sends out a reply that it's been received, and begins the database processes where the matches are made,' Amerson said. 'If there's a hit, that information gets sent back to the Coast Guard command center in San Juan. The command center communicates back to the cutter regarding the status of the person and any precautions that might need to be taken.'

When a fingerprint matches an existing criminal record, the U.S. attorney in San Juan decides whether to prosecute.

Tangible results

The results so far have been impressive ' in terms of both prosecutions and deterrence.

'In the month of March, the Coast Guard had zero interdictions,' Mocny said. 'They're down 50 percent for the year. We can't say for sure it's because of biometrics, but it's interesting that before this program, there was one prosecution and thousands of interdictions, and post-biometrics the numbers are down 50 percent and we have 70 prosecutions. We think biometrics has a lot to do with those successes.'

Chubrick said that in addition to those prosecutions, the Coast Guard has had 50 convictions and identified 244 people who were either repeat offenders or wanted felons.

'From our standpoint it's been very successful as a prosecution tool,' said Chubrick. 'It's saving lives.'

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