Central American migrants seeking to enter the United States through Mexico have gained a lot of attention in recent years and months through the formation of large migrant caravans. The migrants are mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and most are seeking to claim asylum to escape gang violence and violence in their home countries.
Asylum seekers must prove that they will be persecuted in one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or being a member of a particular social group, though priority is given to those who are likely to face violence. Central Americans don’t fit into these categories well, but most claim that they are persecuted for being a member of a social group. Gangs tend to target women, children and young unaffiliated adults. Many are also simply seeking to escape extreme poverty, though this is not a valid claim for asylum.
2018 Migrant Caravan Brought Security Challenges to Mexican Borders
The President of the United States and Congress set a yearly limit for asylum admissions for each area of the world. In 2018, the total limit for asylum seekers was 45,000 and 22,491 were admitted. The limit for Latin America was 1500 while only 955 were admitted. In 2016, 180,617 people worldwide applied for asylum, and only 20,455 (11%) were accepted, so the bar is high.
Despite these long odds and the dangers of the journey itself, Central American migrants try anyway because the threats from gangs are so profound. In October of 2018, the first caravan to arrive at the U.S. border had an estimated 7,000 people. They hoped to enter the U.S. through the Tijuana border, however, most were not allowed to enter the United States for the reason that the crossing facility was already full, though politics certainly also played a factor.
After several weeks of a political stalemate, the Tijuana City government shut down the shelters and sought to relocate the migrants. However, some migrants elected to remain in Tijuana, camping out in the streets outside the closed shelter. As a result of this untenable situation, safety and security issues began arising in these areas.
Without a reliable security system, migrant camps can quickly become centers of instability. The challenge for Mexican authorities is to create an effective layer of security in addition to managing the physical and social needs of a migrant camp. This is further exacerbated by the constantly changing demographics of migrant populations. Situational awareness is, therefore, a challenging goal for Mexican security officials to achieve.
Mexican Authorities Look to Biometric Enrollment for Migrant Visa Management
In January of 2019, a new wave of Central American migrants formed a second caravan and are now headed towards the United States border. Mexican authorities claim that more than 10,000 people have requested visas to cross its southern border and they are working to grant legal documents to members of the rapidly growing migrant population.
If the migrants travel together, the convoy could exceed the size of the last such caravan, but the new movement is less organized than the first. The migrants in the first caravan traveled together for security and in part to avoid arrest. The current group of migrants, in contrast, have legal papers and may be more likely to disperse.
Mexican authorities have an opportunity to better prepare for managing the migrant caravan by utilizing biometrics as part of their enrollment process for their visas. Establishing a population registry is the first step towards ensuring security and stability in a migrant camp and safety for the local population where the camp is located. When authorities know who resides in a camp, they can begin to police it more effectively as well as plan for the delivery of services while managing the social needs of the population.
Biometrics Play a Critical Role in Migrant and Refugee Identity Management
Maintaining reliable population records is also critical for outside aid organizations, many of which need to know the scale and characteristics of migrant flows before committing funds. Given their transient nature as well as the antiquated infrastructure migrants must use, physical documents are rarely a reliable choice to establish or verify identity.
Identity documents alone are an imperfect solution for managing migrant populations as they can be lost, stolen, altered and/or forged. Additionally, the cost associated with creating and distributing the cards makes them even less attractive for security officials.
Biometrics are emerging as the new standard in identity management for refugee and migrant camps. Promoted by the United Nations, biometrics have quickly proven their value for establishing and maintaining the population rolls, which are the bedrock of migrant camp security and efficient delivery of services.
The digital enrollment and verification of biometrics like fingerprints, irises and facial features offer security officials the ability to efficiently and effectively accomplish their goals. Authorities may also have the option to perform background checks against their own criminal or international databases including Interpol and the FBI to ensure camp and local population safety.
A strong biometric solution offers:
- Situational awareness: Build a reliable population registry to enable data-driven policy.
- Targeted service delivery: Definitively establish eligibility for services including food, shelter, medical care and education.
- Elimination of identity fraud: Protect migrants/refugees from exploitation, utilize aid funds effectively, prevent infiltration of camps from outside.
- Security management: Effectively and efficiently monitor traffic through the camps.
Refugee and migrant camps often represent a complicated mix of interests. Host nation authorities, international organizations, non-governmental organizations and the migrants themselves have different goals and motivations, all of which tend to converge around the issue of identity. By establishing a stable and reliable system for identity management, biometric applications satisfy the overlapping needs of the various refugee camp constituencies.
Mexican authorities will be empowered with the situational awareness they need to provide adequate security and protection to the migrant caravan and their own citizens while minimizing the risk of instability. By establishing a definitive knowledge base of who is who within the migrant caravan, authorities can ensure that order is maintained and services are delivered appropriately.
International organizations will be certain that the resources they invest in a camp are used most effectively and efficiently. By confirming that only eligible individuals receive benefits, biometrics will allow international organizations to monitor and evaluate their programs with definitive, real-time data.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will be able to demonstrate to their donors and the public that their programs are having a tangible impact. By definitively establishing eligibility for aid, NGOs can be assured that funds and programs are reaching the intended individuals.
The Benefits Extend to Migrants
The migrants themselves receive the most substantial benefit of all, namely the security, resources and meaningful services which they lacked in their country of origin. After fleeing from economic instability, the trauma of violence and insecurity, famine and natural disasters, they need the stability of a system which delivers their basic needs efficiently. Biometrics eliminate the corruption, instability and uncertainty which is unfortunately all too often a hallmark of migrant and refugee camps around the world. With biometrics, these individuals will reliably receive the care and services they deserve.
Jorge Garcia-DelaTorre is a Senior Solutions Engineer at Crossmatch. He is an expert in security, strong authentication, biometrics, video analytics and identity management in projects related to; border control, voter registration and identification, migrant and refugee management, benefits distribution, military and law enforcement. He has over 20 years of experience in the security industry with companies such as McAfee, Phoenix IVS, and Behavioral Recognition Systems (BRS LABS). Prior to joining Crossmatch, Jorge was the Solution Architect for BRS Labs where he was the lead solutions engineer delivering the video analytics system deployed after the Boston Marathon bombing.
Jorge has a Bachelor of Science in Industrial and Systems Engineering from the Universidad Tecnologica de Mexico and is fluent in English and Spanish.