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Border official: Only a fraction of vehicles are scanned for contraband

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A truck carrying produce from Mexico enters a facility to be scanned for illegal narcotics at the port of entry in Santa Teresa in September 2016. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Only about 15% of commercial vehicles are scanned for potential contraband, such as drugs and guns, as they cross the border from Mexico, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told a congressional hearing Monday at the Santa Teresa border crossing.

The percentage is even lower when it comes to private vehicles, said Hector A. Mancha Jr., El Paso director of field operations. In the El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, it’s lower than 3% of private vehicles. Nationwide, it’s only about 1% of private vehicles, U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., told the field hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security.

Rep. Xochitl Torres Small

She and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, have introduced legislation they believe would address the problem.

The Securing America’s Ports Act aims to increase the scanning rates of vehicles entering the U.S. at land ports of entry with large-scale nonintrusive inspection systems. CBP uses these systems to inspect contents of commercial and passenger vehicles for potential contraband, such as drugs and guns, without physically opening or unloading them.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw

“Our community relies upon a vibrant, secure border, and Congress must prioritize the safety of the residents who call it home,” Torres Small said. “By leveraging this effective technology to examine most vehicles, we help CBP officers work smarter and faster in detecting contraband, while facilitating the flow of legitimate trade and travel border states depend on.”

The legislation would require the secretary of homeland security to develop a plan to increase CBP’s scanning rates to 100% of commercial and passenger vehicles at all land ports of entry.

A truck carrying produce from Mexico enters a facility to be scanned for illegal narcotics at the port of entry in Santa Teresa in September 2016. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

It would include incremental time frames and estimated costs by port and provide annual status reports to Congress regarding efforts to implement the 100% plan. The Department of Homeland Security would be required to carry out a one-year pilot program to research and develop enhancements to the systems and improve use of the inspection systems, given variation of configurations among land ports of entry.

Based on 2019 statistics, Mancha said, CBP officers process 1.1 million passengers and pedestrians, more than 285,000 privately owned vehicles and 81,000 truck, rail and sea containers, and 7.7 million imported goods a day. Torres Small’s office cited statistics by the Congressional Research Service showing that the majority of drugs smuggled into the country come through land ports of entry, not between them.

Mancha told Crenshaw the additional technology would allow officers to also guard against human trafficking at ports of entry, although he said CBP officers didn’t handle many human trafficking cases.

“We do see an implosion of people trying to come in fraudulently,” he said, using the example of people claiming to be parents of children who have been brought across the border.

The need to increase the use of scanners wasn’t the only issue addressed during the hearing. Torres Small expressed an overall need to update the nation’s ports of entry.

“Unfortunately, many land ports of entry have outdated infrastructure,” she said. “They lack technology to detect contraband and suffer from staffing shortages. We saw that overwhelmingly today (during a tour of Santa Teresa). … Related to infrastructure, several ports of entry facilities are over 70 years old. And those that are 15 to 20 years old are outdated.”

Crenshaw expressed concern about the staffing shortage. He said the lengthy hiring process needs to be addressed. Torres Small said there is a shortage of about 3,500 in personnel dealing with customs.

She is a sponsor of a bill that addresses recruiting and retention problems.

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