Staffing shortages at border jeopardize security, economy

Both national security and economic growth are jeopardized by an overtaxed and dysfunctional system for inspecting people and goods at U.S. land ports of entry. That was the picture painted by government officials, federal employee representatives and business leaders testifying Thursday at a House Homeland Security Committee field hearing in El Paso, Texas.

Staffing shortages and poor training among border personnel, along with outdated facilities, an overwhelming workload, and the absence of standardized, tamperproof travel document requirements are contributing to long wait times and security lapses at U.S. borders, officials said.

Thomas Winkowski, assistant commissioner for field operations at Customs and Border Protection, the Homeland Security bureau directly responsible for vetting people and goods entering the country, said CBP is counting on implementation of the repeatedly-delayed Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative to both improve security and facilitate legitimate cross-border trade. U.S., Canadian and Bermudian citizens now entering the United States across land and sea borders are not required to present any specific set of identity or citizenship documents.

"This significantly complicates our ability to verify that people are who they say they are in a matter of seconds," said Winkowski. "Currently, travelers at our land and sea ports of entry may attempt to demonstrate citizenship and identity by presenting any of thousands of different documents to CBP officers when attempting to enter the United States, creating a tremendous potential for fraud."

By Jan. 31, verbal declarations of citizenship will no longer be sufficient to gain entry into the United States. U.S. and Canadian citizens will be required to carry passports or a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver's license, and proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate, but further implementation of the travel initiative remains unclear. Congress delayed the requirement that U.S. citizens have passports to enter the country overland from Mexico or Canada after a similar requirement went into effect last year for entry through airports -- that requirement overwhelmed the State Department's passport processing operations and spoiled vacation plans for thousands of citizens when their passports were delayed.

Last November, the Government Accountability Office reported, and CBP concurred, that "several thousand" people who should have been denied entry into the United States were allowed in through land ports of entry. GAO cited several reasons, including the high volume of traffic border officials contend with and the limited time they have for making decisions. In addition, high attrition levels contributed to inadequate and insufficiently trained staff.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents many of the front-line inspectors at the border, said CBP is woefully short of staff. Low morale and lack of benefits have contributed to attrition rates that are outpacing the agency's ability to hire replacements at ports of entry, she said.

Problems in El Paso are exacerbated by what Kelley describes as scheduling abuses by managers, who sometimes assign officers back-to-back eight-hour shifts that straddle two pay periods, with the intent to avoid overtime pay for the second eight-hour shift. "Scheduling abuses along with short staffing have resulted in overworked officers, safety and overtime violations, and concerns about favoritism in assignment of work and overtime," she said.

A shortage of inspectors has led to miles-long traffic backups at many ports of entry on a routine basis. "Three-hour wait times, which have become common at our international ports of entry, do not equate to greater national security," said Bob Cook, president of the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corporation. According to Cook, more than 15 percent of total trade between the United States and Mexico passes through El Paso ports of entry.

"We should be seeking to aggressively expand the use of technologies and procedures that identify and expedite low-risk traffic in order that we may spend the majority of our time and financial resources on the potentially high risk individuals and cargo carriers," Cook said.

Much of the cross-border traffic through El Paso derives from the nearly 350 maquiladoras, or factories, that operate in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, just across the border. For the most part, the factories-85 percent of which are owned and operated by U.S. corporations-import parts and equipment tariff-free from the U.S. and then sell their products, manufactured with cheaper Mexican labor, back to the United States.

Cook estimates that about 50,000 El Pasoans earn their living either directly or indirectly from the maquiladora industry in Mexico, including thousands who work in the factories themselves as managers, engineers or other professionals. "The sheer volume of cross-border traffic clearly presents a monumental challenge to those agents who are at the ports of entry, working on the front line of providing for the security of the homeland," he said.

In 2007, more than 34 million travelers, 14.3 million vehicles and nearly 759,000 trucks passed through the Port of El Paso, which includes four separate crossing points, said Winkowski. Customs and Border Protection officers there confiscated 4,552 fraudulent documents, seized more than 193,000 pounds of narcotics and arrested 2,830 individuals at the port.

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