- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Fewer than 3 percent of foreigners legally entering the United States by land are checked against watch lists of terror suspects, a report from the homeland security inspector general says.

The report comes on the eve of President Bush’s summit with the leaders of Canada and Mexico, raising concerns about the national security risks posed by porous U.S. borders.

The Department of Homeland Security began last year to implement its US-VISIT program at land ports of entry. The program biometrically verifies the identity of foreign visitors by taking inkless fingerprints and enables visitors’ names to be checked against watch lists of known and suspected terrorists and their associates.

But the inspector general’s report, quietly posted on the department’s Web site last week, reveals that only a tiny fraction of foreigners making the 200 million-plus land border crossings every year have their identity biometrically verified and are checked against the watch lists.

“We are concerned about the large numbers of travelers who are exempt from the enrollment in US-VISIT,” says the report, citing Mexicans’ holding border-crossing cards and Canadians who are “visa exempt.” Together, these two categories make up almost two-thirds of all foreign entrants at land ports of entry, the report said.

The issue of border security has become a hot potato in the run-up to today’s summit, because of U.S. concerns that it represents a potential “back door” for terrorists to enter the country.

Mexican Minister of the Interior Santiago Creel told the newspaper El Universal this week that such expressions of concern were “offensive” and undermined the two nations’ close relationship.

No one from the Department of Homeland Security responded yesterday to requests for comment on the inspector general’s report, but officials have in the past pointed out that in order to obtain a border crossing card, Mexican citizens have to undergo background checks, which include running their names against terrorist watch lists.

Nearly 7 million Mexicans hold the cards, which allow them to enter for up to 30 days if they stay within 25 miles of the border, and used them to make 104 million border crossings last year.

But the report says that in the vast majority of cases, the cards, which bear their holder’s photograph, are only “visually inspected” by border officials, because the scanners that can electronically read them are not located in the so-called primary inspection lanes, where routine crossings are handled.

“As a result, the entry of [the card] holders is not electronically recorded, and their identity is not verified,” states the report.

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