Friday, September 7, 2007

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in Texas have been ordered to abbreviate national security checks at one of the nation”s busiest ports of entry to speed up travel between the United States and Mexico, according to official documents and multiple interviews with agents.

An Aug. 16 memorandum from CBP El Paso field office Director Luis Garcia directs agents to limit inspections of vehicle and pedestrian border crossers as wait times escalate. The document, obtained by The Washington Times, sets new guidelines that border inspectors say undermine efforts to prevent terrorists and other criminals from entering the United States.

The memo says:

• If wait time is 45 minutes or less, officers are required to query all drivers and passengers older than 18 and ensure that the license plate is correct.

• If wait time is 45 to 60 minutes, customs officers are to query only the driver and 50 percent of the passengers. Also, the officers are not to conduct compartment checks and density-meter readings used to find contraband.

• If wait time is 60 to 120 minutes or more — the average wait at the numerous crossings — they are to query only the driver and ensure that the license plate is correct.

“At 30 to 40 minutes of ‘wait time,’ we were querying the driver only at the request of our supervisors,” said an El Paso customs agent, who spoke with The Washington Times this month on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

“Basically, we were only running the documents of the driver every fifth vehicle, so everyone else was coming in without being checked to the same standards. Even if you stick with the letter of this memo, it still falls short for national security purposes.”

Officers, who speculated the guidelines were created to counter complaints from businesses in the region that are angry over delays at the border, said pedestrian crossings are even more vulnerable.

According to the memo, if the pedestrian crossing wait is more than one hour, “query at a rate of 30 percent of pedestrian traffic.”

El Paso is one of the world’s busiest ports of entry. According to the CBP, nearly 40,000 cars went through the ports of entry at El Paso, Santa Teresa and Fabens daily in July. More than 145,000 pedestrians crossed into the United States during that period.

Rosemary Jenks, immigration lawyer and government relations director for Numbers U.S.A., said the directives in the El Paso memo violate federal law.

In Section 110 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, all border inspectors are to collect a record of departure for every alien departing the United States and match the records of departure with the record of the alien’s arrival in the United States.

The purpose of this requirement is to ensure the attorney general has the ability to identify people who overstay their visas for national security reasons.

“Customs and Border Protection should not be telling its agents at ports of entry to abandon critical security procedures when the lines get too long — including checks for drugs or even radioactive materials,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.

“If so, they are ignoring the law and putting convenience ahead of American lives.”

El Paso CBP spokesman Roger Maier would not comment on the memoranda but said that security is the main priority at the ports of entry “on a daily basis.”

Other documents obtained by the paper also show that customs officers in the El Paso sector have been told to “not deny permits” of entry to any person entering the United States, regardless of indicators that they’ve overstayed their visa in the past.

CBP Chief George Carpenter, shift commander, sent a memorandum to all border inspectors informing them never to deny I-94 forms, which allow non-immigrants extended stay in the United States, even if those people failed to turn in previous forms required by law. All the El Paso inspectors were required to sign the memorandum.

According to multiple border inspectors, the agents who denied entry to non-immigrants without proof of the appropriate crossing forms were reprimanded by supervisors.

“It has been brought to my attention that yesterday, a couple was denied I-94 permits because they did not turn in previous ones,” Chief Carpenter said in the memorandum sent in January. “We do not deny permits. We issue the permit or process them for Expedited Removal. … If, during your interview with the applicants, you suspect something or have a ‘gut’ feeling that things are not right, they should be escorted to the SPM (secondary inspection) room as a referral. … Any time an officer feels that a permit should not be granted, for whatever reason, the supervisor should be advised. Again, we do not refuse a permit or send the applicant back for more documentation/proof.”

That problem highlights the need for the system required by the 1996 law, Ms. Jenks said.

“Without an exit system, we have no way to determine whether visa holders have violated our immigration law,” Ms. Jenks said. “It creates a huge loophole by which aliens can exploit and gain from the system and remain in the United States far longer than their visa allows.”

Border inspectors told The Times that Chief Carpenter’s memorandum was part of the agency’s verbal policy for years. The officers indicated their surprise when it was put in writing.

“It was a verbal policy, and they didn’t want to put it in writing so they can get away with it and deny it later,” one customs official said on the condition of anonymity

“That’s the environment that we live in. These are failed policies. We’re not supposed to question the people crossing the border; we’re supposed to just let them in. When you look at the terrorist aspect of it — it was fertile ground for a sleeper cell because they can do or say anything and we’re supposed to believe it.”

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