DHS Data on Illegal Seafarers Unreliable, Says GAO Report

By Matthew Harwood

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cannot say how many foreign seafarers have entered the country illegally at U.S. seaports because of data accuracy problems at two of its agencies, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The report (.pdf), part of a one-year audit to assess the homeland security risk posed by foreign seafarers, found that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S. Coast Guard reported divergent data on the number of foreign cargo and cruise ship workers who illegally entered the country over a five-year span. (Foreign seafarers legally wanting to enter the U.S. need a non-immigrant work visa.)

"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 varied considerably," the report states. "The Coast Guard reported 73 percent more absconders and almost double the deserters compared to CBP for fiscal years 2005 through 2009."

Besides illegal immigrant concerns, the GAO worries that extremists could pose as foreign seafarers to attack U.S. seaports or enter the country. To date no foreign seafarer has ever participated in a domestic terrorist attack against the United States, the report notes, although government officials worry about that possibility. According to CBP data, 5 million foreign seafarers arrived at U.S. seaports in fiscal year 2007, 80 percent of them on cruise ships and other passenger vessels.

The GAO report puts most of the blame for these data inconsistencies on CBP, which has the primary responsibility for  identifying and reporting the number of absconders and deserters to the Coast Guard and other relevant federal and local law enforcement agencies.

Despite this responsibility, the audit  found that CBP could not even keep an accurate count of illegal seafarer incidents internally, with numbers reported by seaport field offices not matching numbers reported by headquarters. According to the report, CBP seaport field offices almost always reported more absconder and deserter incidents than headquarters because field officers failed to regularly enter their data into the proper centralized database, called ENFORCE.

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