Homeland Security Doesn’t Electronically Verify Identity Documents of Foreign Seafarers at U.S. Ports, Says GAO

By Edwin Mora | January 21, 2011 | 8:30 AM EST

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

(CNSNews.com) - The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, a component of the Department of Homeland Security, does not electronically verify the identity or immigration status of foreign seafarers aboard cargo vessels seeking to enter the United States, according to a government audit.

This lack of verification happens even though the State Department has warned that the visas they issue to foreign seafarers (maritime crew members) are vulnerable to exploitation by extremists seeking to enter America by fraudulent means, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which issued a Jan. 14 report on the topic.

Instead, “CBP officers have to rely on information vetted before boarding the vessel and their skill sets to identify fraud and grounds of inadmissibility, both in reviewing documents and in interviewing seafarers,” said the GAO.

“By not having the ability to electronically verify the documents, CBP’s methods for inspecting cargo vessel crew offers less assurance that CBP is identifying fraud among documents presented by the foreign seafarers seeking admission into the United States,” added the GAO.

The report further found that of the approximately 5 million seafarers that CBP inspects at U.S. ports each year, about 1 million arrive on-board cargo vessels, while the rest arrive aboard cruise ships.

The GAO pointed out that the “overwhelming majority” of those 5 million seafarers are aliens.

“Given the number of seafarers transiting U.S. ports each year and the continued threats posed by terrorism to the United States, it is important that seafarer risks are identified and actions are taken to ensure security of vessels and port infrastructure, while preventing illegal immigration,” stated the GAO report.

The report casts doubt on the Department of Homeland Security’s data concerning illegal entries by foreign seafarers at U.S. seaports, saying it is of  “undetermined reliability” because “DHS has no accurate and reliable estimate to gauge the extent of the incidents.”

Furthermore, the GAO noted that CBP has not increased its civil monetary penalties for seafarer-related immigration violations, as required by law, in over a decade. Civil monetary penalties are an important element of regulatory enforcement and can lose their ability to deter if unadjusted for inflation., the report said.

Port of Miami, Fla. (Wikipedia Commons)

The responsibility for identifying foreign seafarers who pose a national security threat to the United States is shared among the State Department, which screens them when they are applying overseas, and the U.S. Coast Guard and CBP components of DHS, which screen them upon their arrival at U.S. seaports to determine admissibility into America and prevent illegal immigration.

Although Coast Guard National Maritime Intelligence Center officials states there have been no reported terrorist attacks to date stemming from maritime crewmembers transiting at U.S. seaports, the federal government is “concerned about the possibility of a future terrorist attack in a U.S. port,” said the GAO.

“Federal agencies have identified seafarer-related risks involving either (1) extremists entering U.S. ports as seafarers and their potential threat to vessels or port infrastructure; or (2) risks posed generally by illegal immigration into the United States,” stated the audit report.

Particularly, the GAO noted that the State Department has reported that the exploitation of seafarer non-immigrant visas “is a national security concern because the visas could be used by extremists to enter the United States.”

“State Department and DHS reports chronicle several cases where groups of seafarers have been able to obtain valid visas through fraudulent means and successfully enter the United States,” reported the GAO.

Despite the potential national security threat posed by the fraudulent use of seafarer visas, the CBP does not electronically check the identity and immigration status when determining the admissibility of foreign cargo crew members into the United States.

CBP officials reported that “having mobile or portable technology to electronically verify the identity of seafarers would enhance their efforts to identify fraudulent documents and confirm immigration status,” noted the GAO.

Not electronically verifying the admissibility of foreign seafarers goes against DHS guidance that “verification of immigration status should not rely solely on verification of physical security features present on a credential,” reported the audit.

CBP officials said that the primary barrier to using technology to identity seafarers “is a lack of available connectivity to network communications in the maritime environment,” noted the GAO.

It is expected that it will take “several years” before “hand-held mobile biometrics screening capabilities that can effectively collect data samples from subjects” reaches the hands of CBP officials, said the GAO.

While foreign maritime crew members, or seafarers, are not required to have a visa to enter a U.S. seaport on a vessel, the CBP does require that they hold one to obtain a conditional landing permit for shore leave, which allows an individual to make multiple entries into the United States -- over a period of up to five years – for no more than 29 days at a time, according to GAO.

There are two types of non-immigrant visas issued to foreign seafarers by the State Department, which allow them to come in to the United States temporarily: C1/D and D visas.

Homesland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The top five nations to which C1/D visas are issued are the Philippines, India, Russia, Indonesia, and Ukraine; and the top five that are issued D visas are China, Philippines, Burma, Saudi Arabia, and Ethiopia.

According to the GAO, “compared to the total number of arrivals at U.S. land and air ports of entry, the number of foreign seafarers arriving in U.S. seaports is small.”

However, the GAO also noted that “seafarers who overstay visas or desert are in violation of immigration law and contribute to the number of illegal immigrants in the United States.”

The State Department stated that the extent of non-immigrant visa fraud by foreign seafarers “does not constitute a substantial problem” despite their concern with the exploitation of seafarer visas by extremists, according to the GAO.

“GAO recommends that DHS assess risks of not electronically verifying cargo vessel seafarers for admissibility, identify reasons for absconder and deserter data variances, and, with the Department of Justice (DOJ), develop a plan with timelines to adjust civil monetary penalties for inflation,” said the audit report, adding that the  “DHS and DOJ concurred with GAO’s recommendations.”