No Big Surprise: Obama Administration Not Fully Implementing Border Passport Requirements

By Janice Kephart on December 22, 2010

Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) internal watchdog, the Office of Inspector General (OIG), began investigating whether DHS had fully implemented a rule concerning secure travel documents known as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). The report is now out, entitled "Customs and Border Protection's Implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative at Land Ports of Entry." In sum, the DHS OIG has concluded that DHS has not fully implemented the law, leaving a significant vulnerability at our land ports of entry that should have been closed in 2009. This is what the OIG concluded:

Although the WHTI document requirement at land ports became effective on June 1, 2009, CBP is not fully enforcing the requirement. CBP’s current WHTI implementation strategy at land ports of entry, established in operational guidance dated May 14, 2009, is informed compliance. Informed compliance seeks to encourage compliance through awareness, education, and outreach. CBP’s goal is to achieve compliance while not unnecessarily inconveniencing those who are uninformed. The guidance further states the majority of noncompliant U.S. and Canadian citizens, once advised of the requirements will be admitted at primary.

Under informed compliance, few WHTI-noncompliant travelers have undergone secondary inspections solely for failing to present a WHTI-approved document. According to the May 14, 2009 operational guidance, WHTI-noncompliant travelers who the primary CBP officer determines to have presented unacceptable documentation on at least two previous occasions, when operationally feasible, may be referred to secondary for verification of identity and citizenship. Based on this guidance, CBP officers only referred about 9,000 WHTI-noncompliant travelers for a secondary inspection from June 1, 2009 through January 31, 2010.

Until the new travel document requirement is fully enforced, the agency continues to incur risk that persons falsely claiming to be citizens of the United States, Canada, and Bermuda may be admitted to the United States.

One of the main 9-11 Commission border recommendations was that we must require secure ID documents of anyone attempting entry into the United States to better assure that (1) people are who they say they are, and (2) there is no derogatory information attached to that person. Prior to September 11, and until January 2008, an oral declaration was enough to enter the United States if you claimed to be a citizen of the U.S., Canada, or Bermuda at our land ports of entry, which process about 700,000 incoming travelers a day. By June 1, 2009, all incoming travelers – after a phased-in transition period of a year and a half – were to present one of a handful of IDs, primarily passports, considered secure enough for entry into the United States. This new requirement was a significant piece of the September 11 law, known as Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRPTA) of 2004, (Public Law 108-458). Congress reiterated in that legislation that the existing admission procedures permitted entry into the United States with little to no identification and that "additional safeguards" were needed to prevent terrorists from entering the United States. It's apparent from the new OIG report that the program isn't fully squared.

I'm not the only one concerned about this latest rollback of 9/11 Commission recommendations. So is Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Nelson Balido, President of the Border Trade Alliance, both quoted in reporter Susan Carroll's Houston Chronicle story, "Stricter rules for entry are ignored at border; Inspectors are allowing travelers to enter the U.S. without secure ID," on this issue. Important enough, too, for Jim McKinley of the New York Times to pick up the story in today's "Lapse in Use of Border Documents." What did I tell both reporters? That the Obama administration is at least consistent in its attempt to permit as much illegal entry as possible, both quietly and more overtly, as is the case with the southwest border between the ports of entry.

As national security and public safety concerns continue to surge across the southwest border states (which have WHTI compliance rates around 92 percent, compared to 98 percent on the northern border), and terror attempts continue on our homeland, the lack of care that President Obama and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano have for securing our borders is unfortunately to be expected. So, no, I was not surprised by the failure of this administration to fully implement WHTI, which was handed over to it ready-to-wear by former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff at the beginning of last year. Rather, peeling back border security is to be expected in an administration that refuses to acknowledge the nexus between border security and national security, mainly because, it seems, doing so would taint an overall "open borders" agenda.