April 16, 2002
Bill designed to speed up border flow and security
By JOE CANTLUPE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – Since Sept. 11, America has tried to shut the
border against would-be terrorists and leave it open for friends,
neighbors and trading partners.
Trying to walk "the tightrope," as a senior U.S. Customs Service
official put it, the Bush administration and Congress are rushing
to fix an antiquated border security system that many agree
can't fully protect the nation's boundaries without paralyzing
Toward that end, the Senate yesterday began debating a White
House-supported bill co-sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein,
D-Calif., that would add more inspectors, improve tracking of
student visas, and get databases run by different law
enforcement agencies to talk to one another.
"It is unconscionable that a terrorist might be permitted to enter
the United States simply because our government agencies don't share information," Feinstein said. "This bill is an important and strong first step toward improving that system."
A similar bill passed the House in December.
The legislation seeks to hasten development of biometric visas,
shared databases and fast lanes for qualified border commuters.
Even though Congress is expected to pass the border security
measure, many experts believe it will be years before much of
the technology is in place.
Meanwhile, balancing enforcement and business interests will
continue to pose thorny conflicts and challenges in border
The Sept. 11 attacks sharpened the debate.
Immediately afterward, the Immigration and Naturalization
Service and Customs Service scrutinized every vehicle and
pedestrian crossing the border.
The ensuing traffic delays "dealt a massive blow to the
Southwestern economy," U.S. Chamber of Commerce President
Thomas Donohue said in February.
Since then, inspectors have backed off looking under every hood
or poking into every trunk of vehicles lined up for hours at
border crossings. Instead, they are conducting a series of
random checks of hundreds of vehicles throughout the day.
"Security takes precedence. We are spending more time with
each individual crossing the border. People are waiting longer,"
said Adele Fassano, the INS director in San Diego.
Careful scrutiny of pedestrians – checking IDs, matching names
with databases – continues, sometimes causing two-hour delays
at the San Ysidro crossing and elsewhere along the Southwest
border, officials said.
Still, immigration inspectors in San Diego say they are frustrated
by the shortcomings of the security approach, and frequent
border crossers are frustrated by the delays.
That has led business interests to argue that security could be
tightened and commerce expedited simultaneously if border law
enforcement authorities would adopt a more enlightened
approach to "risk management."
"We need to have a better strategy of how we can inspect for
problems. That's the idea of risk management," said Teresa
Brown, immigration analyst with the U.S. Chamber of
Commerce. "You've got to find a way to shrink that haystack or
else you'll never find the needle."
A "risk management" success story frequently hailed by both law
enforcement and business interests is the INS "fast-pass system"
– special lanes for pre-screened commuters to allow them to
cross the border within minutes.
A version of that system, known as SENTRI – Secure Electronic
Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection – is used in San Diego.
About 16,900 commuters are now eligible to use a dedicated
traffic lane that allows them to cross the border quickly. About
8,000 applicants have signed up for a minimum six-month
The Bush administration has cited expansion of the system as
one of the key components of its "smart border" accords reached
with Mexico and Canada.
But Congress is reluctant to pour millions of dollars into
Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., chairman of a House panel examining
border security, said he is worried about the reliability of
background checks obtained from Mexico used to evaluate
applicants for SENTRI.
State governments in Mexico must certify that applicants have
no prior criminal record, according to INS officials.
U.S. officials said Mexico lacks a countrywide database to
properly track criminal records, and must rely on local police
officers, some of whom are themselves suspected of corruption.
"If the fast-pass systems are expanded on the southern border,
this problem needs to be addressed, because the more people
are enrolled, the greater the risk that drug smugglers or other
criminals will attempt to take advantage of it," Souder said.
Despite an increased law enforcement presence along the border
crossings from San Ysidro to Brownsville, Texas, experts
acknowledge that catching would-be terrorists is still chancy.
"If we use the term 'security system,' it's neither much of a
system nor secure," former State Department terrorism expert
Larry Johnson told a House panel last week. "Nobody has really
sat down to figure out what a secure border really means."
To counter the criticism, the Bush administration and lawmakers
like Feinstein want tighter security by next year.
They are pushing for quicker development of systems to track
foreign students while they're in the country, and other
non-citizens as they enter and leave.
They want tamper-resistant visas with biometric identifiers,
which are used to compare the information scanned in real time
against an authentic sample stored digitally in a database.
Developing and using such safeguards is expected to take time,
money and political commitment.
"Unless we tighten our loopholes and provide funding for
technology, we're going to be nowhere," Feinstein said yesterday on the Senate floor.
The Feinstein legislation "is an important first step toward a
'smart' border regime that would regulate the flow of goods and
people into this country," said Angela Kelly, a policy analyst
with the National Immigration Forum, an immigration advocacy
But some remain skeptical.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., chairman of the powerful
Appropriations Committee, said yesterday he doubted whether
some of the deadlines set by the Feinstein bill to improve border security technology would be met. He also questioned the proposed $3 billion cost.
A disclosure last month that the INS mailed notices of visa
approvals for two alleged terrorists killed in the Sept. 11 attacks
"shows that the INS is still basically a paper-pushing agency in
the Internet age," said Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute.
"I think there's the institutional inertia that's making this more
tortuous than it should be," said Griswold of proposals to
improve the border security system. "My perception is that
progress is going pretty slowly."