Logjam

SAN YSIDRO, CALIF. — It's no longer business as usual on the busiest land border in the world.

Every day, officials struggle to stem the flow of illegal activities and stop potential terrorists and weapons before they are smuggled into the United States.

But with limited money and new technologies still on the drawing board, Homeland Security Department officials are facing a Herculean challenge to protect a border that is nearly as porous as Swiss cheese.

Much of the technology at the U.S./Mexican border is old. Other tools — such as biometric identification cards — are being tested here, but are not widely deployed. And the ambitious U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program, designed to record the entry and exit of every visitor crossing the land border here beginning in 2004, has no infrastructure to keep track of people going back to Mexico.

"It's a freeway heading south," said Oscar Preciado, San Ysidro's port director.

The job is complicated even more by the multiple jobs facing the new U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which is part of DHS, such as searching for drugs while looking for weapons and spotting illegal aliens while tracking the path of a potential terrorist.

But that is only half the challenge. At the same time, the agency has to make sure the flow of commerce is not halted — or even slowed — because it would hurt the economies of both Mexico and Southern California — regions that depend on people and goods crossing the border without delay.

In lieu of US-VISIT and other ambitious border programs, the agency is doing the best it can with the technology on hand.

Picking targets

One of the basic strategies is what agency officials call risk management.

Federal officials try to identify in advance low-risk visitors and cargo, thus giving them faster passage across the border while enabling agents to concentrate limited resources on high-risk people and shipments, said Adele Fasano, CBP's director of field operations at San Ysidro.

People who cross the border frequently are well-known to border agents and carry visitor cards that allow them quick passage through special vehicle lanes. Officials from well-known companies such as General Motors Corp. already have agreed to inspect their own cargo under a government program in order to cross the border more quickly.

"We have limited resources," Fasano said. "We try to apply resources to the higher-risk cases. What we are trying to do is reach out to the community and do as much prescreening as we can."

During a recent tour of the border checkpoint, where 24 lanes of traffic provide a steady flow of cars into the United States, she said security has been increased since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The No. 1 priority now is stopping potential terrorists, and that is no easy task, she said.

To check cars and drivers, a wide array of technologies are used. The tools range from radiation-detection pagers carried by every agent to fiber-optic scopes that can look into a car's gas tank, Fasano said. Cars are selected randomly to undergo a secondary check by military personnel assigned to help monitor drug trafficking.

Those who walk through the checkpoint on a regular basis have identification cards with their fingerprints on them. Border agents compare what is on the card to a person's fingerprint using a tool resembling a small flashlight that takes an image of the fingerprint, which then appears on a computer screen. It is a time-consuming exercise, because more sophisticated biometric equipment isn't yet available.

Border officials are able to give increased attention to cars and foot traffic because of the commercial shipping methods.

Daily, thousands of trucks roll across the U.S./Mexican border carrying perishable goods such as tomatoes and cucumbers, and electronic gadgets such as televisions and the latest high-tech toys.

In the not-too-distant past, border agents used dogs and X-ray machines to find contraband. But now that their priorities have changed, they are wasting no time making sure that trucks crossing the border are precertified as secure.

Big companies such as Hitachi Ltd. are complying with new regulations that give them faster clearance across the border from their factories in Mexico, where goods are assembled at a lower cost using local labor.

The company's trucks have transponders on their windshields that transmit information about the contents of their cargo to CBP agents. Once they make it through the long lines on the Mexican side of the highway, they have no problem crossing the border in minutes through lines dedicated to low-risk cargo.

But, if there is something suspicious, watch out. Anything considered unusual is pulled aside for a far more comprehensive search (see box, below).

Ironically, the increased security has resulted in a dramatic rise in drug seizures — more than 35,000 pounds of marijuana were seized at two nearby ports in February and March. Although the seizures have not been traced to terrorists, government investigators believe terrorists are using profits from the narcotics trade to finance their activities.

To date, no terrorists have been detected nor have weapons been found. But traffic has at times slowed to a snarl at the border checkpoint since the new precautions have been in place. Even though many regular travelers pay $129 per year for a background check and a pass that gives them entry to the United States through faster lanes, one motorist recently complained that he was waiting in line for more than a half-hour because the system still doesn't work.

The delays are no surprise to anyone. Last year, 7.6 million pedestrians and 42 million vehicles passed through the San Ysidro port. CBP officials maintain a Web site that tells visitors how long the wait is to cross the border.

Border officials are working to reduce the delays even while they are enhancing border security. Among the heightened technology is better targeting of vehicles and cargo.

A first-time importer, for instance, is almost guaranteed to spend several extra hours at the checkpoint, where agents go through manifests and cargo. First-timers might have their names run against computerized law enforcement records to see if there is a match. "It is the visitors who will be regulated," Fasano said.

But it is nearly an impossible task. People cross the border here much like residents of Virginia go to the District of Columbia to work, shop or go out to dinner, according to Rep. Robert Filner (D-Calif.), whose congressional district stretches along the Mexico/Arizona border.

"The economy is in great disruption," he said. "We have a binational community at the border. You have to be able to cross efficiently to keep life going. All they are doing is stopping regular people."

Israel Adato, president of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, said the tightened security is likely to impact the entire region from the border to San Diego, where Mexicans spend $3 billion a year at the area's shopping malls.

There are some solutions, he said, including smart cards for regular travelers who undergo background checks and are issued a card with biometric identifiers such as a fingerprint or iris scans. He also believes the US-VISIT program should be delayed until the kinks are worked out and commerce isn't affected.

"Would you sign a lease for a 4,000-square-foot store if your business is going to drop 75 percent?" he asked.

US-VISIT and other border security programs, such as the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System to register foreign students, are going forward as planned with no delays in sight. And border officials maintain they will be able to handle the increased checks, demand for speed and enhanced technology to move people back and forth.

"We are focused on terrorism, preventing it and detecting it," Fasano said.

But Filner, whose congressional district is impacted each day, predicts chaos. "Everybody will be waiting for hours," he said. "Whatever you do that's longer than a second is a disaster."

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