Panel probes effort to monitor Mexican trucks at border

At issue is how well the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection work together.

Witnesses testifying before a House subcommittee Tuesday debated whether the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection are cooperating effectively to address the risks of a pilot program that would allow Mexican-owned trucks to cross into the United States.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, chairwoman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection, said she remained "unconvinced" that real partnership existed between the agencies. Although CBP is responsible for physically checking trucks and drivers at the border, TSA issues licenses for transportation of certain goods.

Both agencies maintain databases with license information, but they do not have consistent access to each other's files. About 4 million trucks cross into the United States every year from Canada and Mexico.

In particular, panel members expressed concern over whether TSA and CBP share information about trucks once they are over the border. The questions arose in response to a pilot program proposed by the Transportation Department that would allow up to 1,000 Mexican-owned trucks to cross over the U.S.-Mexico border and drive on America's interstate highways.

The goal of the test program would be to facilitate more continuous trade. A similar program was adopted at the Canadian border several years ago.

But the risk would be that once in the United States, truck drivers could engage in "cabotage," the illegal practice of operating as an unlicensed carrier, or more serious crimes like aiding in terrorism.

Under current law, Mexican-owned motor carriers can operate trucks only in municipalities and commercial zones on the U.S.-Mexico border. The House passed the Safe American Roads Act in March in response to the proposed pilot program. The legislation would require the Transportation inspector general and an independent review panel to monitor new cross-border trucking programs. The measure has yet to be enacted.

Bill Arrington, general manager of highway and motor carrier security at TSA's Office of Transportation Sector Network Management, said the agency encourages truckers to report suspicious behavior by other trucks or drivers. The reports are consolidated by TSA, which can then determine whether the same truck has been involved in suspicious behavior in more than one location. TSA can then pass the information to law enforcement authorities.

Under the pilot program, Mexican truck drivers would receive an I-94 form from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The I-94 is a nonimmigrant form, also referred to as an arrival-departure form, and would allow drivers to remain in the United States for up to six months.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla., asked if TSA or CBP would track whether drivers left the country after their allotted time was up. Greg Olsavsky, director of cargo control for CBP's Office of Field Operations, said if drivers overstayed their entry visas, then the matter would be passed to Citizenship and Immigration Services for investigation.

Another concern is the Mexican regulatory system. Drivers and carriers licensed in Mexico may not undergo the stringent background checks or security screenings required of U.S.-based carriers. Under the Safe American Roads Act, the Transportation Department would have to review U.S. and Mexican trucking regulations, and comment on why differences in the rules should not prevent a Mexican-owned truck from operating in the United States.

U.S. government agencies keep extensive files on American truck drivers, including databases of all those licensed to transport hazardous materials. Jackson Lee called for the creation of similar databases to track Mexican drivers, prior to implementation of the pilot program.

Better interagency cooperation also could resolve security conflicts that arise at the Canadian border, said Gregg Ward, vice president of Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry Inc. He said security concerns often arise at privately owned tunnels and bridges where the government has difficulty enforcing security measures.

"You wouldn't need to create a new department at the Department of Homeland Security to enforce rules," said Ward, noting that there are no more than 10 privately owned or operated border crossings on the Canadian and Mexican borders. Ward suggested passing legislation that would give government agencies like the CBP conclusive authority over security measures employed at private border crossings.

Ward, whose company ferries dangerous cargo across the U.S.-Canada border, also said government agents have never asked about Detroit-Windsor's finances, ownership or relationship to other companies. "Nobody keeps track of who we sell our company to," he said. "If we decided to sell our company to al Qaeda USA, wouldn't that be of interest to the U.S. government?"