January 31, 2003
Border security investigators find easy entry into U.S. with false IDs
San Ysidro included in test by General Accounting Office
By JOE CANTLUPE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
and Leonel Sanchez
WASHINGTON – Border security became a hot topic again yesterday
when congressional investigators said they used phony ID cards to
cross easily into the United States at various ports, including San Ysidro.
The findings, revealed before the Senate Finance Committee, were
immediately used by some lawmakers as further evidence that the
country hasn't done enough to secure its borders since 9/11. Several
suggested the possibility of requiring passports for Americans
traveling in the Western Hemisphere, although they cautioned the idea
needs further study.
In San Diego, Congressman Bob Filner said he fears the federal report
will lead to more detailed inspections at the border, without regard to
the impact on the massive volume of traffic and on local border
economies. About 130,000 people cross daily at the San Ysidro Port
of Entry, the world's busiest land port.
"Unfortunately, Washington does not understand the border
communities, and they simply aren't giving us the resources to make
sure that the border is both secure and efficient," said Filner, a
Democrat whose district includes San Ysidro.
Immigration officials criticized the investigation as deeply flawed. It
was conducted by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm
Only three investigators carried out the undercover probe, and they
made just five trips across the U.S. border from Mexico, Canada and
the Caribbean. The investigators found lax security at the ports of
entry at San Ysidro; Blaine, Wash., and Miami International Airport.
"Immigration and Naturalization Service and U.S. Customs Service
officials never questioned the authenticity of the counterfeit
documents, and our agents encountered no difficulty entering the
country using them," said Robert Cramer, managing director of the
GAO's office of special investigations.
The GAO investigators said they used common computer equipment
to make the fake driver's licenses and birth certificates.
U.S. citizens traveling in the Western Hemisphere aren't required to
show a passport when entering the United States but are supposed to
be able to prove citizenship. Often, the INS accepts someone's
statement as verification. The agency also accepts state or federally
issued birth certificates, baptismal records or photo IDs such as a
San Diego INS spokeswoman Lauren Mack said passports are easier for
inspectors to read than state-issued driver's licenses because they can
be scanned through machines linked to federal databases.
"There is no computer database that connects INS with DMV
(Department of Motor Vehicles) records," Mack said. Inspectors can
run names from driver's licenses through the massive Interagency
Border Inspection system, but it's a time-consuming process done
manually at secondary inspection, she said.
"We do it as often as we feel is necessary," Mack said.
The GAO agents made two trips across the border into the United
States at the San Ysidro crossing. On one occasion, an INS inspector
asked an undercover agent if he was a U.S. citizen and whether he had
brought anything from Mexico.
After the agent replied that he was a U.S. citizen and had nothing to
declare, the inspector allowed him to proceed without requiring proof
of identity, according to the finding.
On another trip, INS inspectors asked two agents for identification.
Both presented counterfeit driver's licenses and were allowed to cross
into the United States.
The INS downplayed the importance of driver's licenses and other
documents in evaluating whether a person is a U.S. citizen.
"Our inspectors like to use what I call the sixth sense," said Johnny
Williams, executive assistant commissioner for field operations for the
INS. "They can look at people, notice behaviors, the movement of their
eyes. Sometimes they don't even look at a driver's license."
Mack said the inspectors at San Ysidro are some of the agency's best.
They have to be, she said, "because this is a high fraud area."
Last year, immigration inspectors at U.S. ports of entry arrested
71,000 foreigners trying to enter the United States illegally, including
24,000 in San Ysidro. The majority were caught with false documents.
The INS has limited authority over U.S. citizens, except for smugglers
and other criminals.
"Chances are pretty good if they are caught with phony documents
they won't even be prosecuted," said an INS official. "Normally, we'll
just confiscate the documents."
Immigration officials privately ridiculed the GAO investigation, noting
that two of the three investigators had accents – New York and New
England – that clearly identified them as Americans.
GAO officials said they used only a few inspectors and made only a
handful of trips because the office has limited resources.
The undercover probe was sought by committee chairman Charles
Grassley, R-Iowa, and the panel's ranking Democrat, Max Baucus of
Grassley said he was troubled by the findings. "I can't help but have the
view that the doors to America are wide open," he said.
Local border experts are worried about some of the suggested
"Why should I have to carry a passport to drive across the border to
have lunch?" said Kenn Morris, director of Crossborder Business
Associates in Otay Mesa.
"The bureaucrats in Washington can require law-abiding American
citizens to carry their passports either in the U.S. or across the border,
but that won't solve any problem with terrorism. That will only hurt
our local tourism and our local attempt to create an integrated
Morris and Filner said the federal government must work harder to
develop technology that enhances security but also facilitates
"What the (GAO) report shows is that we're not doing things very smart
at the border," Filner said.