Sophisticated Systems Slow Illegal Crossers! 

Sophisticated Systems Slow Illegal Crossers! 
Posted by FoM on January 15, 1999 at 07:11:55 PT

From a San Diego hillside overlooking the border with Mexico, you can see the many obstacles illegal aliens and drug smugglers must navigate to enter the United States. There is a steel fence cutting across miles of scrub, stadium lights that illuminate the night and hundreds of government agents in vans and inspection booths.
But increasingly, the border is being fortified with another line of defense that even the fastest sprinter may have trouble eluding. Whether using stealth or crossing legally by car, citizens and non-citizens alike must now overcome a barrier of computer chips, copper wires, video monitors and camera lenses.To bolster its effort to stop illegals from entering the country and to speed along the law-abiding, who sometimes wait for hours to cross the border with a truck or car, the government is enlisting the help of technology. Within the first moments of entering the United States, most travelers become the focus of electronic scrutiny."We are clearly coming into the 20th century just in time," said Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.Nowhere is that more true than in San Diego, where thousands of people cross the border, legally and illegally, each day. The federal agencies that oversee the frontier have installed an array of gadgets that can, for example, find hidden compartments where drugs may be stashed, scan license plates to see if a car is stolen and help law-enforcement agents see people concealed in the bushes.The investment in border technology is part of a larger effort to control the nation's frontier with an infusion of personnel, fences and aircraft. Though critics say that the buildup has merely shifted the stream of illegal traffic from urban areas like San Diego to more remote locations, officials say they are gaining the upper hand.But some supporters of immigrants rights complain that electronic deterrents are intrusive and not very neighborly. Some question whether it is necessary to "militarize" a border shared with a friendly nation.Among the most sophisticated systems on the border is one at the Otay Mesa crossing, a bustling port of entry on the outskirts of this seaside city. Frequent commuters can avoid long car lines of up to two hours by using what is called an automated driving lane. It is the difference between traveling first class and suffering in steerage.Cars in the program are equipped with transponders that emit a sort of radio fingerprint. As a car approaches the border, the license plate number, along with the names of the authorized occupants and their photographs, appear on a monitor inside the inspector's booth. Inspectors compare these images with the faces inside the cars to see if there are any impostors.Leaning outside her booth into the car fumes on a recent afternoon, Christine Aranita, an INS inspector, found people who had shaved their beards or gained weight, but nothing out of the ordinary.As drivers swiped an identity card through a machine, she asked if they had brought anything with them from Mexico and, when told no, wished them a good day. A few people chosen at random were referred to the inspection area by the computer as a precaution against smuggling, but most quickly continued on their way."In the other lanes, you have to check the immigration documents and make sure that they actually belong to them because we have a lot of fraud," Aranita said. "The good thing about the automated lane is that they've already gone through a background check, so it's much faster. We already know who they are."The goal of the automatic lane is to allow inspectors to dispatch low-risk travelers quickly and spend more time with the others. As it is, inspectors in the regular lanes typically spend less than a minute to question each person and examine the person's documents.Olga Gomez, one of 3,300 people authorized to use the automated lane, was enthusiastic about the program. "Waiting in line used to be horrible" when commuting between her home in San Diego and her job at a furniture factory in Tijuana, she said. Now she crosses the border in about 40 seconds and thinks nothing of the $129 annual fee to participate in the program."Believe me, I pay that with a happy face," said Gomez, who was having her fingerprints scanned by a computer in the port office to renew her identity card.Some remote ports of entry along the Canadian border use other kinds of technology that allow people to cross even after everyone who works there has gone home for the day. At a crossing in Scobey, Mont., for example, residents can speak into a microphone connected to a computer that analyzes their voices and lets those it recognizes pass.In the Northeast, there are several isolated border crossings where inspectors can work via video camera from dozens of miles away. Travelers must hold up their identity documents and sometimes open their trunks for a camera so the images can be transmitted back to inspectors watching live on a television screen.Cameras also play a role at Otay Mesa, where they scan the license plate number of every passing car so a computer can check it against those on a criminal lookout list. If the computer finds a problem, it alerts the inspector with a loud beep.Keeping reliable files on illegal aliens, who often use fraudulent documents or carry no identification, is almost as easy. Using digitized fingerprints, a computer system can determine whether an alien has been caught before and is wanted by the police.A Mexican woman who identified herself as Patricia was looking especially glum as an inspector entered her fingerprints and digital photograph into the database for the first time. She had tried to fool inspectors by using someone else's U.S. birth certificate and would now be deported and prohibited from legally entering the country for five years."Before, it was like, 'Do I know you?' " said Rick Perez, an immigration agency supervisor at Otay Mesa. "Unless you recognized the person, you would never know whether they had been apprehended before."It used to be difficult enough just to determine whether someone crossing the border was carrying an authentic green card or crossing document. But the agency has recently started phasing in cards that include holograms, magnetic stripes and digital photographs, which make them more difficult to forge.Layered defense is also the theme in inspecting trucks, which for years have been used to smuggle everything from Cuban cigars to cocaine, from humans to puffer fish. If the sheer number of different gadgets is any measure of official resolve to thwart illegality, truckers should beware."We don't rely on any one piece of technology," said Ray Mintz, director of applied technology for the U.S. Customs Service, which oversees vehicle inspections. "Every truck, every car, every container that comes in the country will run the gamut of three or four different securities."Border authorities still use low-technology deterrents like dogs to look for hidden drugs and money. 
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