According to information published on the San Diego Union Tribune News Website, the U.S. federal government is turning to biometrics, aiming to crack down on foreigners who remain in the country with expired visas — and Otay Mesa is slated to be a key test site.
The “Pedestrian Border Experiment,” expected to launch this year, will focus on non-U.S. citizens who enter and exit the United States on foot through Otay Mesa. It will involve the first use of facial and iris scans on the country’s southern border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Prompting the experiment is an effort by U.S. authorities to track nonimmigrant visa holders who enter the United States legally but remain in the country after the permits have expired. A 2006 study by the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that visa overstays comprise 40 to 50 percent of the country’s unauthorized population.
“We want some system to determine that you’ve left the country, whether it’s at an airport getting onto the jetway, or here at the pedestrian crossing,” said R. Gil Kerlikowske, the federal agency’s commissioner, during a visit to San Diego this month.
The program responds to nearly two decades of congressional pressure to track exits as well as entries. A 1996 law imposed penalties on those who overstay their visas, including bans on re-entering the country. But enforcing the law has been difficult, without some method of certifying whether a visa holder has left before his or her visa expired.
While the CBP conducts southbound checks at the Mexican border, these usually have involved searches of vehicles for weapons, bulk cash and other contraband, and pedestrians walking into Mexico at Otay Mesa are not currently the subject of much scrutiny — either by the U.S. or Mexican governments.
The test, slated to take place over a two-month period, is expected to involve a sizable number of crossers: CBP counted about 183,000 northbound pedestrians at Otay Mesa in June, or more than 6,000 a day. Roughly the same number cross southbound, though there is no official count.
The experiment comes amid a mounting national debate over the use of biometrics by government agencies, a practice that has stirred fears over the potential for abuse. The experiment has also raised concerns over the possibility of long southbound pedestrian lines at Otay Mesa.
“We’ve been dreading this moment for many years. We knew it was bound to happen,” said Alejandra Mier y Terán, executive director of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce. “We understand that this was mandated. The better technology, the less the impact.”
A CBP statement on biometrics testing says the agency “is dedicated to protecting the privacy of all travelers,” and that “the images will be stored in a secured local database and will be used for test purposes only and will not be stored or shared with any other party or system.”
Still, Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation said use of such data in the future remains uncertain. “It’s less of a concern with this pilot project, but more of a concern if they adopt this going forward,” she said. “What’s going to happen to this data, and how is it going to be used?”
Biometrics, which measures physical characteristics unique to an individual, can be used in verifying identity. The methods include fingerprinting, but also iris scans that focus on the unique characteristic of the colored part of an individual’s eye, and facial recognition technologies that look at bone structure and curves around the eye socket.
Unlike fingerprinting, both iris and face images can be taken at a distance of several feet, said James Wayman, a biometrics expert at San Jose State University. But these methods “can be sensitive to lighting conditions and human factors, such as hats, glasses and contact lenses,” he said.
The Otay Mesa trial “will determine if the available technical options for automated passenger recognition can be expanded to include iris and face imaging,” he said.
Once the experiment starts, northbound foreign pedestrians at Otay Mesa will be processed through kiosks that are capable of taking iris and facial scans, according to Pete Flores, director of the CBP’s San Diego field office. U.S. citizens would not face any changes in the way they are processed, he said.
For those crossing southbound into Mexico, the agency is preparing to set up a small processing center under a canopy just west of the port’s vehicle lanes where pedestrians walk into Mexico.
These southbound crossers would be separated by categories: U.S. citizens with passport cards or other radio frequency identification-enabled documents would simply swipe the cards through a document reader, with no biometrics involved, Flores said.
Non-U.S. citizens with RFID-enabled documents such as the updated U.S. visa card would “walk through,” Flores said. “As they walk through, we will have an RFID reader, and we will have a device that will read the iris. The intent is to capture individuals while they’re on the move.” The area will also include facial biometric cameras.
A third category, U.S. citizens as well as foreigners with documents that are not RFID-enabled, would be sent to kiosks to swipe their documents. A fourth category, those crossers without documents or with unreadable documents such as birth certificates, would be processed manually.
The test is expected to last about two months, and “we will attempt to capture as many people as we can,” Flores said. If lanes back up, inspectors have the option to wave some crossers through.
“We are looking to test this equipment to see how well it works in making that comparison for entry and exit,” he said. “We know that technology potentially works well in a very well controlled environment. In an airport setting, you have the right amount of lighting, you have the passenger standing in front of an officer, in front of a kiosk, positioned just right. We are going to use that same technology on people who are walking into Mexico at Otay Mesa.”
The Otay Mesa experiment is one of three targeted biometric studies outlined in a CBP presentation in March, first reported by the science and technology website Motherboard.
The first test looked at U.S. travelers at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., using advanced technology to identify impostors attempting to use legitimate U.S. passports. The second outlined in the presentation, at Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport, focused on foreign travelers, using biometric data to confirm their departure.
The third test, the Otay Mesa pedestrian project, seeks to “test the viability of facial and iris image capture in an outdoor land exit environment,” according to the CBP presentation.
By Sandra Dibble
sandra.dibble@sduniontribune • Twitter: @sandradibble