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Many Americans still reentering the U.S. from Mexico and Canada without proper documentation, report finds

December 27, 2010 |  1:03 pm

Despite new travel requirements, more than 2.3 million Americans reentering the country by land or sea from Mexico or Canada failed to produce a passport, birth certificate or other secure document to establish identity and nationality, a government review has found.

Most people, including about 500,000 in California, were still allowed to pass through ports of entry without the approved documents or without being transferred to a secondary inspection post for a more in-depth examination, according to the report by the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security.

Many travelers were allowed to pass after undergoing extensive questioning and producing at least a driver's license, the report found. Overall, 96% of travelers arriving at the 39 busiest land ports complied with the new law, which took effect in June 2009.

The procedure for processing those without the required documents also needs to be more precise and implemented across the board, the report said.

Despite these findings, the audit concluded that if all those who skirted the rules were referred to a secondary inspection, which is not currently required, the agency would not have the necessary staffing and infrastructure to handle the resulting increase in workload.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agrees with the findings and plans on following the inspector general’s recommendations, said Stephanie Malin, a spokesperson for the agency.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, approved by Congress last year, requires U.S. travelers reentering the country from Mexico or Canada to present documents, such as a passport or birth certificate, to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.

At the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego, the busiest land border crossing in the country, a traveler without the proper documents is usually sent to a secondary inspection for further scrutiny, said Jackie Dizdul, a San Diego spokesperson for the agency.

But if an officer can determine the person’s identity and citizenship in the initial contact, through questioning or other supporting documents, such as a driver's license, they are allowed to pass without being referred to a secondary inspection, Dizdul said.

All travelers who are not in compliance are told how the regulations work and what documents are required. That procedure is common among all ports of entry, Malin said.

In the first eight months of the initiative, officers at San Ysidro referred about 282,000 travelers without proper documents, about 1,150 a day, to secondary inspections. During this same period, officers allowed about 167,000 travelers, about 680 a day, to pass without the documents or a secondary inspection.

With current staffing levels and available space, a policy that sends all non-compliant travelers to a secondary inspection would cause major delays at the port, the review said.

In February, the agency will conduct an analysis at the ports of entry in Laredo, Texas, and Detroit to gauge the effect of such a policy, Malin said.

Out of more than 1 million people, both U.S. and foreign citizens, who legally enter the United States each day, about three-fourths arrive by land from Mexico or Canada, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials.

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-- Stephen Cesar

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