U.S. wants to place immigration inspectors at foreign airports

The government will send teams of inspectors to airports abroad to screen visitors coming to the United States by plane, the customs commissioner said Wednesday.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner, speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said the agency would begin testing an immigration security initiative within the month at Poland's Warsaw International Airport. A team of up to seven specially trained inspectors will be placed there. The primary mission will be anti-terrorism, such as preventing travelers who are on U.S. terrorist watch lists from flying, but the team will also perform more traditional roles, such as detecting fake travel documents.

"In essence, the immigration security initiative seeks to put much of what we do at the U.S. ports of entry out to the foreign airports on the theory that if a potential terrorist is seeking to enter the United States, it's far better to catch that person before they board a commercial airliner with passengers on it heading for the United States, than after they arrive here," Bonner said.

The agency will assess the initiative in six months and hopes to expand it to other airports, Bonner said. He said other countries and airports are voluntarily cooperating, and Warsaw International was the first to ask to participate. Another location under consideration is Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

A similar effort was started by the legacy Immigrations and Naturalization Service, but got lost in the reorganization shuffle when INS merged with the Homeland Security Department.

"In the transition of the Department of Homeland Security and the breakup of the INS, essentially these programs were allowed to atrophy," Bonner said. "What we're trying to do is to revamp the old INS program, but give it a homeland security focus."

Other countries such as Canada, Britain and Australia use inspectors at foreign airports, according to Bonner, who says he anticipates that countries and airlines will appreciate the addition of U.S. inspectors to help identify security risks and immigration violators.

"We're hopeful that other countries will be receptive to it because it adds to the overall security and it's in the economic self-interest and benefit of the airlines that are flying to the United States," he said. "We're certainly looking at a whole range of potential foreign airports where it could be placed. The real question will be, where does it make the most sense and which countries want to join us in doing it?"

According to Bonner, border and customs agents were not trained or focused on counterterrorism before the attacks of Sept. 11. Indeed, the 19 hijackers entered the country 33 times before 9/11. Several were stopped by border inspectors at different times and referred for secondary screening but were still allowed into the country, even though at least two were identified by the CIA as having terrorist connections.

"We had them literally in our hands and we let them go," Bonner said. "We weren't looking for terrorists. We were looking for aliens who might overstay their visas and who might attempt to stay in the United States illegally. Customs was looking for individuals who might be smuggling illegal drugs. Before 9/11, neither immigrations nor customs inspectors were looking for terrorists or potential terrorists on any type of sustained and concerted way backed up with training."

Today, border inspectors are better trained and ready, Bonner contends. "Nearly every day," he said, "we're refusing entry to someone that we believe may well be associated with terrorism."

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