Maritime Security:

Federal Agencies Have Taken Actions to Address Risks Posed by Seafarers, but Efforts Can Be Strengthened

GAO-11-195: Published: Jan 14, 2011. Publicly Released: Jan 14, 2011.

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The State Department and two components of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Coast Guard, are responsible for preventing illegal immigration at U.S. seaports and identifying individuals who are potential security risks. The International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted the Seafarers' Identity Documents Convention (ILO 185) to establish an international framework of seafarer identification documents and reduce their vulnerability to fraud and exploitation. GAO was asked to examine (1) measures federal agencies take to address risks posed by foreign seafarers and the challenges, if any, DHS faces; (2) the challenges, if any, DHS faces in tracking illegal entries by foreign seafarers and how it enforces penalties; and (3) the implementation status of ILO 185. GAO reviewed relevant requirements and agency documents on maritime security, interviewed federal and industry officials, and visited seven seaports based on volume of seafarer arrivals. The visits provided insights, but were not projectable to all seaports.

Federal agencies use a layered security strategy to address foreign seafarer risks, but opportunities exist to enhance DHS seafarer inspection methods. Federal actions include: (1) State Department screening of seafarer non-immigrant visa applicants overseas and (2) DHS advance screening of commercial vessels' seafarer manifests and admissibility inspections of all arriving seafarers. CBP conducts cargo vessel admissibility inspections on board the vessel without the benefit of tools to electronically verify a seafarer's identity or immigration status because of a lack of available connectivity to network communications in the maritime environment. DHS has prioritized the acquisition of a mobile version of this technology capability but expects it to take several years before the technology is developed and available. CBP agrees that obtaining this capability is important but has not assessed the risks of not having it. Until CBP obtains the capability, identifying the risks and options to address them could better position CBP in preventing illegal immigration at seaports. DHS faces challenges in ensuring it has reliable data on illegal entries by foreign seafarers at U.S. seaports and has not adjusted related civil monetary penalties. First, both CBP and Coast Guard track the frequency of absconder (a seafarer CBP has ordered detained on board a vessel in port, but who departs a vessel without permission) and deserter (a seafarer CBP grants permission to leave a vessel, but who does not return when required) incidents at U.S. seaports, but the records of these incidents varied considerably. The Coast Guard reported 73 percent more absconders and almost double the deserters compared to CBP for fiscal years 2005 through 2009. As a result, the data DHS uses to inform its strategic and tactical plans are of undetermined reliability. Second, CBP is responsible for imposing civil monetary penalties on vessel operators whose seafarers illegally enter the United States; however, as of December 2010, CBP and DOJ had not met legal requirements for adjusting the penalties for inflation. Officials reported taking steps to meet these requirements, but have not developed a plan with timelines for doing so. Such a plan would better position CBP and DOJ to demonstrate progress to comply with legal requirements. International implementation of ILO 185 has been limited--18 countries, representing 30 percent of the global seafarer supply, have ratified ILO 185--and key ILO mechanisms to promote compliance are not expected to be in place until later this year. As of January 2011, the United States had not ratified ILO 185 largely due to concerns over a provision for facilitating visa-free shore leave for foreign seafarers. Perspectives varied among the four federal agencies GAO interviewed within DHS and the departments of State, Transportation, and Labor. Within DHS, the Coast Guard reported that it supported U.S. ratification, while CBP stated that ILO 185's lack of oversight did not serve U.S. law enforcement interests. The U.S. has recently undertaken an interagency review to consider ratification but has no timeline for completion. 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. DHS and DOJ concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred with this recommendation and stated that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will work in conjunction with the DHS Screening Coordination Office to determine parameters to measure and assess risks associated with the absence of technology for onboard vessel inspection of seafarers. In February, 2013, CBP reported that the agency, along with other stakeholder agencies, will conduct a preliminary assessment of national security and other risks associated with the need for electronic verification technology in cargo vessel admissibility. CBP anticipated completing this assessment by May 31, 2013.

    Recommendation: To facilitate better agency understanding of the potential need and feasibility of expanding electronic verification of seafarers, to improve data collection and sharing, and to comply with the Inflation Adjustment Act, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commissioner of CBP to assess the national-security and other risks faced by CBP in the absence of technology to provide electronic verification as part of CBP's admissibility inspections for cargo vessel seafarers and identify options for addressing these risks and their costs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our January 2011 maritime security report, we reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) faced challenges in ensuring it had reliable data on illegal entries by foreign seafarers at U.S. seaports. In particular, two DHS agencies, CBP and the Coast Guard, track the frequency of absconder (a seafarer CBP has ordered on board a vessel in port, but who departs a vessel without permission) and deserter (a seafarer CBP grants permission to leave a vessel, but who does not return when required) incidents at U.S. seaports. However, we found that the two agency's records of these incidents varied considerably. For example, the Coast Guard reported 73 percent more absconders and almost double the deserters compared to CBP for fiscal years 2005 through 2009. Agency officials were unable to fully explain why their respective data varied so considerably. As a result, we found the data DHS uses to inform its strategic and tactical plans for seafarer security were of undetermined reliability. In accordance with Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government, we recommended DHS direct CBP and the Coast Guard to determine the reasons that absconder and deserter data varies between headquarters and field units, and between the Coast Guard and CBP. DHS concurred with the recommendation and stated that CBP and the Coast Guard would begin to assess the appropriate offices within each component involved in the review and to establish a working group to evaluate the current reporting process within each component, and between CBP and the Coast Guard. In December 2012, CBP and Coast Guard officials requested GAO close this recommendation, reporting that they had taken action to determine the causes for the absconder and deserter data variances and determined actions necessary to address them. For example, according to a CBP memorandum dated April 2011, CBP requested that each of its field offices with seaport operations provide their respective data on absconder and deserter counts for fiscal years 2009 through the first quarter of fiscal year 2011. The officials developed an excel table to analyze the data collected from the field offices, and in May 2012, CBP and Coast Guard subject matter experts reportedly began collaborating to analyze their data. CBP reported that CBP and Coast Guard subject matter experts reported that they had identified multiple variables that could lend to the discrepancy in reporting data including differences in the geographic boundaries for a particular region, a difference in definitions for absconders/deserters both internal to CBP and between CBP and USCG, and the method in which the data was recorded and subsequently pulled for reporting purposes. Officials reported that CBP and the Coast Guard determined that the best approach to address the cause of the absconder and deserter variances was to develop and issue a joint CBP/Coast Guard Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to field units. In August 2013, CBP and Coast Guard officials reported that efforts to develop this MOA were underway. This action is consistent with the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To facilitate better agency understanding of the potential need and feasibility of expanding electronic verification of seafarers, to improve data collection and sharing, and to comply with the Inflation Adjustment Act, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard and Commissioner of CBP to determine the reasons that absconder and deserter data varies between headquarters and field units, and between the Coast Guard and CBP and determine any actions necessary to address any variance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred and stated that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Coast Guard would begin to assess the appropriate offices within each component involved in the review and to establish a working group to evaluate the current reporting process within each component, and between CBP and Coast Guard. Further, DHS noted that it was working to co-locate the Coast Guard's ICC Coastwatch and CBP's National Targeting Center-Passenger and that this would help to eliminate many of the absconder-and deserter- reporting inconsistencies GAO identified between Coast Guard and CBP. In January 2013, CBP and Coast Guard officials reported that they had studied the CBP and Coast Guard data and found that multiple factors had likely contributed to the data variances, including differences in definitions for absconders/deserters among CBP and Coast Guard field units, and the method in which field units had recorded and reported absconder and deserter incidents. Officials reported that the two agencies were planning to develop an interagency memorandum of agreement (MOA) with field guidance for reporting absconder and deserter incidents. Officials reported that they expected to finalize and implement the MOA and field guidance by November 30, 2013.

    Recommendation: To facilitate better agency understanding of the potential need and feasibility of expanding electronic verification of seafarers, to improve data collection and sharing, and to comply with the Inflation Adjustment Act, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard and Commissioner of CBP to jointly establish an interagency process for sharing and reconciling records of absconder and deserter incidents occurring at U.S. seaports.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On December 1, 2011, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a joint final rule: Civil Monetary Penalties Inflation Adjustment. Effective January 3, 2012, this final rule amended DHS regulations to adjust for inflation certain civil monetary penalties assessed under the Immigration and Nationality Act, including those involving foreign seafarers. This action is consistent with the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To facilitate better agency understanding of the potential need and feasibility of expanding electronic verification of seafarers, to improve data collection and sharing, and to comply with the Inflation Adjustment Act, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General of the United States should develop a plan with timelines for issuing regulations, as required by the Inflation Adjustment Act, to adjust civil monetary penalties associated with violations of the Immigration and Nationality Act involving foreign seafarers gaining illegal entry into the United States and provide this plan to Congress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) had not met legal requirements for adjusting civil monetary penalties associated with violations of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) involving foreign seafarers gaining illegal entry into the United States. We reported that because CBP had not raised its penalties in over a decade, it had not exercised the full scope of its enforcement authority with respect to civil monetary penalties. CBP and DOJ share responsibility for issuing regulations pertaining to these civil penalties--with DHS responsible for drafting and initiating development of the regulation, enforcing the law, and imposing civil penalties. We recommended that DHS and DOJ develop a plan with timelines for issuing regulations, as required by the Inflation Adjustment Act, to adjust civil monetary penalties associated with violations of the INA involving foreign seafarers. In response, on December 1, 2011, DHS and DOJ issued a joint final rule: Civil Monetary Penalties Inflation Adjustment. Effective January 3, 2012, this final rule amended DHS regulations to adjust for inflation certain civil monetary penalties assessed under the INA, including those involving foreign seafarers. This action is consistent with the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To facilitate better agency understanding of the potential need and feasibility of expanding electronic verification of seafarers, to improve data collection and sharing, and to comply with the Inflation Adjustment Act, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General of the United States should develop a plan with timelines for issuing regulations, as required by the Inflation Adjustment Act, to adjust civil monetary penalties associated with violations of the Immigration and Nationality Act involving foreign seafarers gaining illegal entry into the United States and provide this plan to Congress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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