The House Homeland Security Committee held a field hearing yesterday in El-Paso, Texas, examining ways to bolster security along the nearby U.S. border without hampering legitmate travel and economic activity.
Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) called it unacceptable that thousands of unauthorized people cross into the United States each year, while lines for legal entry get longer and longer .
Referring to a recent U.S.Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Thompson said Customs and Border Protection (CBP) must hire more personnel and train them better.
Insufficient staffing plagues CBP. Richard M. Stana, director of homeland security and justice issues for the GAO, said that after the GAO examined resource requests from offices last January, it "found that managers at 19 of 21 offices cited examples of antiterrorism activities not being carried out, new or expanded facilities that were not fully operational, and radiation monitors and other inspection technologies not being fully used because of staff shortages."
To plug its staffing shortages up, the CBP hired 648 new officers in 2007, said Thomas S. Winkowski, assistant commissioner of field operations for the CBP. He also said CBP has developed a workload staffing model to make sure staff are positioned wisely according to threat, vulnerability, and workload.
GAO found other factors contributing to CBP's subpar performance and low morale include complacency, a lack of supervision from superior officers, and a lack of training. These factors also hamper recruitment and retention of top-notch talent.
Colleen M. Kelley, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents over 20,000 CBP officers, said the most effective way to bolster recruitment and retention is to grant CBP officers law enforcement officer (LEO) status.
"CBP Officers," she said, "perform work everyday that is as demanding and dangerous as any member of the federal law enforcement community, yet they have long been denied LEO status."
According to Kelley, many CBP agents leave for other opportunities within the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies because of the benefits associated with LEO status, especially retirement coverage.
But any improvements to border security shouldn't come at the expense of legal border crossings, or our southern neighbors, one witness said.
Bob Cook, president and CEO of the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corporation (REDCo), decried three hour wait times at the border as harmful to national security and called the building a wall across the U.S.'s southwest border "an insult to our neighbors and allies in Mexico and truly un-American in nature."
If the United States doesn't produce a solution to its border woes, he said, El Paso will suffer economically. Referring to a study from the Texas Center for Border Economic and Enterprise Development, Cook said a mere 1 percent decline in border crossings would cost the El Paso border region $76 million in retail sales and 1,500 jobs.
Cook hopes the United States will adopt processes and technologies to make border crossings secure and hassle-free, he said.
Winkowski said CBP plans installation of technology to ease border-crossing bottlenecks under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). The technology, known as readers, would scan data embedded in drivers' travel documents against law enforcement databases before they reach the border official.
"This enables CBP to enforce more than 400 laws from 40 different federal agencies, without impeding traffic flow," he said.
Yet CBP does not own the majority of landed ports of entry; the General Services Administration (GSA) does. GSA owns 58 percent and leases another 15 percent of the nation's ports of entry to municipal, state, or private entities, according to Winkowski.
Thus, it is the GSA's responsibility to make sure the necessary capital improvements occur , which Laurita Doan, the administrator of the GSA, says it will do. "Our goal is simple: to expand capacity and build new facilities where they are needed most, in a timely manner."
But expansion poses space problems, said Kathleen Campbell Walker on behalf of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Many ports do not have enough space to meet the necessary expansion requirments to increase federal inspection areas to relieve border delays and some have no space at all.
"If 'border security' means sufficient infrastructure at our land border ports, when is this objective actually achievable?" she asked.