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Border Agents In San Diego Step Up Screening With Biometrics


A couple years ago we finished a report on the U.S.-Mexico border by crossing from Tijuana into the United States. It took hours. The crossing is just that busy. Now customs agents are testing new technology on many who cross - facial recognition and iris scanning. Here is David Wagner of KPBS in San Diego.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Where are you going, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible).


DAVID WAGNER, BYLINE: At the Otay Mesa border crossing, people are lining up to enter the U.S. This busy crossing on the southeast edge of San Diego processes thousands of vehicles each day. But many frequent crossers choose to walk through the border on their way to work, to visit family or to go shopping. Today some of those pedestrians are about to find out that crossing the border now involves one more step.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

WAGNER: Border agents help them feed their travel documents into brand-new kiosks. Then, if they're a U.S. citizen and their documents clear, they're ushered across the border. But the non-U.S. citizens are asked to stay put for a moment.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Look in the mirror.

WAGNER: They have to stand very still while a camera inside the kiosk scans their face and eyes.

JOSEPH MISENHELTER: This is a national security issue as far as looking for individuals who are violating the law.

WAGNER: Joseph Misenhelter with Customs and Border Protection explains this is all part of a pilot program evaluating biometrics at the border. He says the agency wants to know if tracking uniquely identifying facial features can help better screen people.

MISENHELTER: This will address certain issues as far as, is that the same person on the document, potential visa overstays. So we'll know with certainty, did that person really leave the United States?

WAGNER: Otay Mesa is currently the only land border stop where people crossing by foot will have their faces scanned. And for now, scanning is only being done on non-U.S. citizens. But if the test is deemed successful, facial biometrics could expand to other border stops. Among those crossing at Otay Mesa, Abel Gongora says he's fine with face scanning as long as it cuts down on wait times.

ABEL GONGORA: If that's going to improve that, you know what I mean?

WAGNER: Gongora is an American citizen who lives in Tijuana for its cheap rent. But he works in the U.S. as a music instructor. The border can make his commute excruciatingly long.

GONGORA: I really need to get over there. I need to get over there.

WAGNER: Many Mexican citizens say they're also more concerned about wait times than anything else. Cesar Quezara says getting his face scanned is no big deal.

CESAR QUEZARA: It's very easy. Now it's more quick. I think it maybe one, two, three second.

MTRA EBADOLAHI: I would say you're interest in getting through the border as quickly as possible is a valid one.

WAGNER: But the ACLU's Mitra Ebadolahi says border crossers shouldn't be so quick to trade their personal information for shorter waits.

EBADOLAHI: If you pay for that convenience by giving up a photo of yourself, and that photo then gets into a database - not just at the border but potentially used elsewhere - how would you feel about the government having that information on file for you indefinitely?

WAGNER: Ebadolahi is worried that this focus on physical features could lead to racial profiling and false matches. Customs and Border Protection says the images collected during this test will not be shared with other agencies. It also says these new biometrics have similar accuracy to old standbys like fingerprint scanning. For NPR News, I'm David Wagner in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Wagner

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