More than 18 months after U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspectors were supposed to start enforcing stringent ID requirements at the nation’s land borders, millions of travelers are still being admitted without passports or other secure IDs, a new government audit shows.
An Office of Inspector General report released Monday found that CBP remains unprepared to fully implement the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which officially took effect in June 2009 and requires all travelers, including U.S. citizens, to carry passports or one of a handful of other forms of secure ID.
In the first eight months after the requirements took effect, 2.3 million travelers failed to provide proper paperwork at U.S. land ports of entry.
CBP internal policy, issued shortly before the implementation deadline, only required travelers who provided improper paperwork multiple times to undergo added inspection, resulting in additional screening for about 9,000 people based only on their lack of documentation, according to the report.
Auditors singled out Texas for having the lowest compliance rate in the country, with nearly 1-in-10 travelers — 1.1 million people — arriving at Texas land borders without proper identification during the period of the review.
Critics warned that the failure to fully implement the more stringent ID requirements, mandated by Congress as part of its response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, amounts to a security vulnerability.
Until the new travel document requirement is fully enforced, OIG’s auditors wrote, the agency “continues to incur risk” that it will admit travelers falsely claiming to be citizens of the U.S., Canada, Bermuda and Mexico.
“This report highlights why our nation’s border security must be our first priority,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in response to the OIG’s findings. “The WHTI requirements have been in place for over a year, and it is unacceptable that the administration failed to ask for adequate resources needed to fully comply with the mandate.”
While identifying problems preventing full compliance, auditors noted significant recent improvements by CBP in technology and manpower. The auditors also reported CBP had a high overall compliance rate with document requirements — 96 percent nationwide — driven in part by a robust public outreach and media campaign.
CBP spokeswoman Yolanda Choates declined comment on the report Monday. In a written response to OIG, a top CBP official said that “despite OIG’s characterization, all travelers have to satisfy, and will continue to have to satisfy, the inspecting officer of their identity, citizenship and admissibility prior to their admission to the United States.”
Even travelers that fail to comply with the WHTI requirements are queried against terrorist watch databases, CBP wrote.
According to the report, the agency does not yet have a date to fully implement the WHTI requirements.
The agency has been phasing in implementation of the requirements since 2008, when U.S. citizens used to be able to enter the U.S. with an oral declaration of citizenship. During a “transition phase” travelers were required to show a government-issued photo ID and another document showing proof of citizenship or a valid passport. As of June 1, CBP required all travelers to show a passport or other form of specific, secure ID.
According to the OIG, CBP received $365 million in funding in fiscal years 2008 and 2009 to implement the document requirements at land ports of entry. CBP made significant technology improvements and added nearly 300 additional CBP officers during those two years specifically to help implement WHTI requirements. But the agency still lacks sufficient personnel at some ports, auditors found.
The report raised several practical concerns about CBP’s ability to fully implement the requirement. OIG auditors estimated that if all travelers without proper IDs were sent to secondary inspection for added scrutiny, it would cause severe backlogs at the ports of entry. The number of people sent to secondary inspection, where inspectors refer travelers who raise suspicion, would increase by an average of 73 percent at the 49 busiest land ports if the requirement was fully enforced.
In its response to the OIG, CBP officials said that not all travelers lacking the proper documentation need to be sent to secondary inspection in order to be properly screened.
Critic calls policy ‘lax’
Janice Kephart, with the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter border controls, said the WHTI was designed to provide several layers of security that would help identify someone who means to do the U.S. harm, such as a criminal or terrorist. The policy currently in place in the ports is “extremely lax,” she said, and falls short of the original security goals outlined under the initiative.
Nelson Balido, president of the nonprofit, San Antonio-based Border Trade Alliance, said CBP deserves credit for its outreach efforts to educate the public about the added documentation requirements.
“There’s still room for improvement, but I think CBP has come a long way over the years,” he said.