Border Security Falls Short In Audit

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers failed to stop roughly 1 in 10 illegal immigrants and serious drug and weapons violators from entering the United States through airports and official land border crossings last year, according to a new congressional review.

While screeners turned back more than 200,000 foreigners in 2006, random audits indicate that they missed another 20,000 violators. The Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit arm, blamed failures by officers and supervisors along with inadequate training and staffing. A Customs and Border Protection study this summer concluded that the agency needs 1,600 to 4,000 more officers and agricultural specialists at the nation's air, land and sea ports, or a boost of 7 to 25 percent, the GAO reported.

The federal government has embarked on a costly buildup to guard remote stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border, doubling the Border Patrol ranks to 18,000 agents between 2000 and 2008, planning to add 570 miles of fencing and vehicle barriers and 200 miles of sensors by then, and boosting spending on border security to $9 billion last year.

But experts say as many as half of the United States' estimated 12 million illegal immigrants entered the country not by sneaking across the border but by evading detection at the 326 legal ports of entry or by overstaying visas.

"The more [money] that you pour into the Border Patrol and into enforcement between ports of entry . . . the more pressure there is for people to misuse the system that gets them through the legal ports of entry. It's important to have a balance of resources between both," said Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the agency that preceded Customs and Border Protection.

At CBP's request, the GAO withheld the screening failure rate and staffing estimate from a report made public yesterday, calling the data sensitive to law enforcement. The Washington Post obtained the information from two sources familiar with the full report.

In an interview, CBP Deputy Commissioner Jayson P. Ahern acknowledged staffing shortages, but he cast doubt on the accuracy of estimates of how many violators his agency fails to catch -- without discussing the GAO's figures in either case. Auditors cited a CBP program that, since 1999, has compared the rate of violations found among random travelers at ports of entry, who are selected for more detailed inspections, to its arrest totals.

"There are a lot of compliance measurement methods out there, and none of them are exact. . . . I'm not sure any are valid of individuals that we didn't successfully apprehend," Ahern said.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, CBP has expanded screening of travelers and deployed radiation-detection equipment and fingerprint scanners. But 400 million people cross U.S. borders each year, and authorities have been unable to effectively screen them without affecting border communities and trade with Canada and Mexico. That might improve after Jan. 31, when the United States will require travelers to present passports or a reduced number of more secure, machine-readable identification documents than the 8,000 types now used, Ahern said.

In its report, the GAO cited officers' mistakes -- captured by the CBP in 2006 for a 15-minute training video -- in waving through vehicles without required interviews and letting traffic pass as officers changed shifts and logged on to their computers.

GAO testers conducting checks at eight sites found individual cases of officers waving on a pedestrian without looking up from the computer, clearing another by asking from 10 feet away if he was a U.S. citizen and leaving an inspection booth unattended for three or four minutes.

Auditors also found officers with morale problems, fatigue, lack of backup and safety concerns.

"We owe the brave men and women charged with keeping terrorists, illegal drugs, and other dangerous people and items out of the country much better training and working conditions," Senate homeland security committee member Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) said in a written statement. Akaka is among those who requested the GAO probe.

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