U.S. authorities last week blamed tuberculosis carrier Andrew Speaker’s illicit reentry to America on a single point of human error, faulting a Champlain, N.Y., inspector who failed to detain him as instructed by a computer alert.
But the episode underscored much broader gaps in border security that may persist as a result of actions taken by Congress and the Bush administration on passport and immigration policies in recent weeks, former U.S. officials, analysts and government reports say.
In August, a congressional study said investigators who used fake identification documents and posed as American travelers reported breaching U.S. land border inspections 93 percent of the time in 2002 and 2003, succeeding in 42 of 45 tries. In 2006, testers got through on all 18 attempts.
Even more troubling, experts say, roughly half of land crossers on the 4,000-mile-long U.S. frontier with Canada are not asked to present a credential at all, because of the crushing flow of traffic across the world’s longest undefended frontier and staffing limitations for U.S. border guards. If the guards do ask for IDs, they routinely have seconds to judge the validity of acceptable documents.
To the public, the costs of those defenses include billions of dollars pledged for fences and Border Patrol officers; delays imposed on travelers mistakenly caught on watch lists; and the diplomatic and civil liberties battles spawned by U.S. demands for information about foreign and domestic travelers. Also controversial are the financial and privacy tolls of stricter national standards for IDs such as driver’s licenses and more intrusive computer databases of fingerprints and other ID tools.
Yet the complex and sophisticated system being erected to sort out dangerous “needles” such as terrorists from a haystack of innocent travelers remains vulnerable to fraud and errors by frontline border inspectors, consular officers, immigration officers and motor vehicle department clerks.
Several current and former U.S. officials predicted that border controls would be more effective when authorities face a terrorism suspect, not a sick person, because data would probably be shared faster and more widely across law enforcement agencies and foreign governments.
Each day, U.S. officers at 327 crossings process 1.1 million inbound travelers, 327,500 private vehicles and 85,300 shipments of goods. Traffic at Champlain, one of the busier land crossings on the U.S.-Canada border, has roughly quadrupled since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1993, prompting an $80 million expansion to alleviate backups reported as high as five hours.
Travelers routinely spend about 45 seconds at U.S.-Canadian crossings, according to department officials, during which officers have to assess oral claims of citizenship in the United States or Canada. Eight thousand forms of driver’s licenses, birth certificates, baptism or hospital records can be presented under existing rules.
On May 24, when Speaker appeared, 2,674 passenger vehicles and commercial trucks passed through. About 40 text alerts requiring secondary inspection were triggered, and the one involving Speaker went unheeded.
The failure of U.S. border inspectors in Speaker’s case “highlights how much pressure they’re under . . . to let people in, how low a threshold there is . . . and the fallibility of it all,” Kephart said.
The Bush administration had proposed several initiatives to reduce that pressure by improving travel documents, reducing illegal immigration, and integrating databases of Americans’ main form of identity—their driver’s licenses. But each was dealt a blow last week.
Last week’s apparent collapse of immigration legislation also set back a bid to expand REAL ID—a program to set national standards for driver’s licenses and link state databases by 2009. Under the Senate plan, presentation of a standard license would be needed for employment by 2013. Fifteen states have passed legislation opposing the program, which is expected to cost states $14.6 billion over 10 years.