Mexicans Stroll Unchecked Through Border Ports

Randy Hall and Josiah Ryan | Staff Writers | Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mexicans Stroll Unchecked Through Border Ports

( - A video made during an investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office shows a stream of Mexicans strolling through the border into the U.S. as federal Custom and Border Patrol agents sit staring at "information on computer screens."

On another of the videos recorded at eight entry points across the country, an agent was reportedly waving aliens through the lane without "looking at them, making verbal contact or inspecting travel documents."

According to testimony from Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), these incidents were not isolated.

"While Custom and Border Patrol Officers have had some success in apprehending inadmissible aliens and other violators, the analyses indicate that several thousand inadmissible aliens and other violators entered the country at air and land ports in 2006," Stana said during a hearing of the Senate federal workforce subcommittee last week.

The danger of such a lax policy is clear to Stana. "It is increasingly the responsibility of the Customs and Border Patrol to counter the threats posed by terrorists and others attempting to enter the country with fraudulent or altered travel documents," he said.

The report states that managers at 19 of 21 field offices told the GAO that staff shortages had prevented them from carrying out anti-terrorism activities or hampered their use of radiation monitors and other technologies to inspect cargo and travelers.

Although Customs and Border Patrol employs about 17,600 officers at U.S. entry points, it has relied on overtime to keep shifts staffed at a number of its airports, seaports, and border stations, including some that operate around the clock. During the 2006 fiscal year, staffing shortages forced officers to work 4.2 million hours of overtime.

The agency withheld data on staffing from the document, because it deemed the information too sensitive for public release.

Greg Letiecq, president of the anti-illegal immigrant organization Help Save Manassas in northern Virginia, said he believes the inability to secure even entry ports poses grave dangers for national security.

"If it's so patently easy for just a common illegal alien looking for day labor to walk in without any kind of inspection or investigation, it has to be easy for an al Qaeda terrorist to do the same," Letiecq said.

Though the danger is easily recognized, officials find it difficult to agree on how to improve security at these points. During Stana's testimony before the subcommittee, he cited a general "lack of focus and failure to engage" as important reasons why thousands of illegal aliens slip under agents' noses each year.

Paul Morris, executive director for admissibility and passenger programs at the patrol's Office of Field Operations, said the primary problem was the state of the agency's facilities.

"We are challenged by the continually expanding demand for our services," he said. "We have developed and implemented a comprehensive training curriculum. Expanded responsibilities and enhanced technologies have stretched our physical resources well beyond our capacity. Right now, our facilities are stretched to the limit."

But Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), a member of the chamber's Homeland Security Committee, described insufficient funding as the heart of the problem.

"Insufficient staffing and training seem to be the central reasons for these inadequate inspections," Akaka said in a statement following Stana's testimony.

"Approximately $4 billion in capital improvements in the facilities at land border crossings is needed, but there is only approximately $250 million in the president's fiscal year 2008 budget for infrastructure improvements," he said.

Though a significant portion of Stana's testimony dealt with insufficient funding and facilities, he cited as his first difficulty a lack of vision among the leadership of Customs and Border Patrol.

"Emphasis is not being placed on all missions, and there is a failure by some of its officers to recognize the threat associated with dangerous people and goods entering the country," he said.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), whose district is heavily affected by its proximity to the border with Mexico, told Cybercast News Service he agrees that the problem is deeper than just a lack of funding.

"I am deeply concerned by recent reports of Customs and Border Protection officers allowing individuals to cross the border without checking their citizenship status or admissibility," Smith stated. "Putting convenience ahead of national security will ultimately bear a cost in American lives."

Letiecq said he believes a culture that ignores the rule of law is partly responsible for the misconduct of agents at the border.

Referring to what he calls "the zero enforcement law" in Virginia, Letiecq said border agents may feel discouraged by the debate over immigration waged daily in America. "The prosecution of border patrol agents who are doing their jobs to the best of their ability must kill morale," he said.

As policymakers continue to wrangle over how to improve efficiency at points of entry, the problem is apparently getting worse.

According to Stana's testimony, both aliens and alien-smuggling organizations have become aware of the holes at national ports of entry. He said they have already "trained operatives to take advantage of these weaknesses."

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