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Inspection of the Secure Electronic Network
for Travelers' Rapid Inspection

Report Number I-2000-019
June 2000


SENTRI's mission is to "develop an inspection process that expedites the legal entry of low risk border crossers in non-commercial vehicles . . . while maintaining the security and integrity of the United States border." SENTRI is intended primarily for high volume ports-of-entry where commuter wait times are considered to be a problem. In October 1999, INS identified roughly 15 ports-of-entry that could potentially benefit from the implementation of SENTRI or another dedicated commuter lane (DCL) program based on current traffic volumes and commuter wait times.

SENTRI was first piloted at Otay Mesa, California, in November 1995 as a JPR reinvention laboratory (see Appendix II for a description of SENTRI's major milestones). Otay Mesa was selected as the first site for SENTRI because of the port-of-entry's moderate traffic volume, relatively low incidence of border violations, and supporting physical infrastructure such as available inspection lanes and office space for SENTRI's enrollment center.

Including SENTRI, there are currently 16 JPR reinvention laboratories. These laboratories are part of the Vice President's National Partnership for Reinventing Government effort and are intended to "promote the redesign of programs, processes, administrative structures, or a combination of these, with the overall goal of providing better services or products." 2 JPR offers agencies like INS assistance in developing, planning, and implementing reinvention laboratories as a way of testing new concepts. In the case of SENTRI, this assistance has included establishing a cross-agency project team consisting of representatives from INS, Customs and other relevant stakeholders like DOT, DOS, DEA and FBI, developing a business plan, establishing goals and performance measures as part of SENTRI's Performance Measurement Plan (see Appendix III), and securing funding for SENTRI's early-stage research and development activities.

The SENTRI reinvention laboratory has received several prestigious awards including a 1996 Hammer Award, presented by the Office of the Vice President, as well as the 1998 Finalist Innovations in American Government Award, presented jointly by the Ford Foundation and Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. In 1997, SENTRI was selected by the Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program for inclusion in the Smithsonian Institution's Permanent Research Collection on the Information Age.

Based on SENTRI's early success at Otay Mesa, SENTRI was expanded as a reinvention laboratory to two additional sites along the Southwest border. In August 1998, equipment for SENTRI was installed at San Ysidro, California; however, protracted negotiations between the U.S. and Mexican governments concerning construction plans for San Ysidro's two planned SENTRI lanes have delayed the opening of this site. In September 1999, SENTRI became operational at the Stanton Street Bridge in El Paso, Texas. By October 2000, three additional sites are planned for the Southwest border: Calexico, California, and Brownsville and Hidalgo, Texas.

Although not affiliated with the reinvention laboratory, INS has also expanded SENTRI to two Northern border sites: the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, New York, in April 1998, and the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, Michigan, in April 1999. Both of these sites were chosen by INS primarily because they had existing, non-automated DCLs already in operation.3 Neither JPR nor Customs played a role in the selection and development of these two sites.

As of September 1999, there were nearly 6,400 individuals enrolled in SENTRI at Otay Mesa, the Stanton Street Bridge, the Peace Bridge, and the Ambassador Bridge combined. Each of these sites has one SENTRI lane with the exception of the Stanton Street Bridge, which has three SENTRI lanes.4

SENTRI's Inspection Process and Equipment

At each of the sites, SENTRI allows pre-approved participants and their pre-registered vehicles to enter the United States through a DCL (see Figure 1). This lane cannot be used by anyone other than those who are enrolled in SENTRI and this lane is only open to non-commercial vehicles. Using Dedicated Short Range Communications technology, registered vehicles are equipped with a radio frequency transponder that sends a unique signal to SENTRI's automated operating system as these vehicles approach. Triggered by this signal, SENTRI's automated operating system then displays information about enrolled travelers and their registered vehicle on a computer screen inside an inspection booth along with information and photographic images of all registered occupants authorized to cross the border in that particular vehicle. Inspection booths are staffed by either INS or Customs inspectors trained to use SENTRI's automated operating system.

Figure 1: Configuration of the SENTRI Lane

Although all of the existing SENTRI lanes are similar in construction, SENTRI sites along the Northern border do not have the exit-control features that sites along the Southwest border have, such as pop-up bollards and automatic gates. Among SENTRI's sites along the Southwest border, there are also differences in exit-control features. Unlike Otay Mesa, for example, the Stanton Street Bridge does not have tire shredders. In addition, the planned pilot site at San Ysidro will include an electronic netting device, installed port-wide, as a last line of defense against unauthorized vehicles (i.e., port-runners) attempting to illegally enter the United States without stopping first at an inspection booth.

For each vehicle that enters the SENTRI-designated lane at each of the sites, a vehicle query is automatically performed using the Treasury Enforcement Communications System (TECS). This system includes lookout records from INS, Customs, DOS, and other law enforcement agencies on individuals who should either be denied entry into the United States or whose entry should be noted and monitored by the proper law enforcement authorities.

Once a vehicle reaches the inspection booth, the driver must swipe his or her electromagnetic identification card through an electronic card reader to complete the inspection process. Using the photographic images displayed by SENTRI's automated operating system as a comparison, the inspector then verifies visually that all occupants of the vehicle are authorized to cross using the SENTRI lane and that all other entry requirements have been met. If so, the vehicle is allowed to enter the United States (see Appendix IV for a more detailed description of the inspection process).

Inspectors also have the option to refer vehicles in the SENTRI lane to a more comprehensive secondary inspection conducted by Customs inspectors. As a quality control measure against either the unauthorized or illegal use of the SENTRI lane, SENTRI's automated operating system also randomly refers a pre-designated percentage of vehicles to a secondary compliance inspection.

SENTRI's Enrollment Process

Only individuals considered "low risk" by both INS and Customs are eligible to participate in SENTRI. During the initial phase of the enrollment process, which is performed at a designated enrollment center, applicants must complete Form I-823 (Application: Inspections Facilitation Program), submit a non-refundable application processing fee, have their fingerprints taken and mailed to the FBI's Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS),5 and undergo a preliminary interview by either INS or Customs inspectors.6 Biographic data are then entered into SENTRI's Global Enrollment System (GES) database. Appendix V describes SENTRI's enrollment process in greater detail.

The GES database includes the applicant's name, permanent address, telephone number, gender, country of citizenship, occupation, social security number, and vehicle registration information. The GES database currently contains enrollment data only on applicants at individual ports-of-entry.7 The INS eventually plans to develop a national network that will link each of SENTRI's existing enrollment databases across all ports-of-entry as well as link databases from other automated inspection systems like the INS Passenger Accelerated Service System and the Remote Video Inspection System.

Following completion of the application, an electronic criminal background investigation is performed for each applicant using the Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS). Using an applicant's name and date of birth, IBIS queries various law enforcement databases, including TECS, and various INS-maintained databases, including the Central Index System, Deportable Alien Control System, and the National Automated Immigration Lookout System. IBIS also includes DOS lookout records as well as records from various law enforcement agencies. Combined, these databases and lookout records include information on wanted persons, stolen vehicles, criminal histories, and alien status. In addition, each applicant must submit to a personal interview by an INS or Customs inspector.

Depending on the outcome of the background investigation, an applicant is either denied entry into SENTRI or is tentatively approved. Applicants who receive tentative approval must undergo a full Customs vehicle inspection. If an applicant's vehicle is cleared, an applicant is officially approved for participation in SENTRI and a radio frequency transponder is installed in his or her vehicle. SENTRI's approved applicants are referred to as "enrollees." Biometric data are then collected from each enrollee, including a digitized photograph and hand geometry, and an electromagnetic identification card is issued. The entire enrollment process generally takes four to six weeks to complete. Enrollment status must be renewed annually, which requires that inspectors perform electronic criminal history checks for each enrollee as well as verify citizenship status and ensure that enrollees have not violated any of SENTRI's rules of participation. Applicants who are denied entry into SENTRI may re-apply after 90 days.

SENTRI's Authorization, Funding, and Budget

Under Section 286(q) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, INS is authorized through September 2000 to establish land border pilot projects, including SENTRI, along both the Northern and Southwest borders.8 In addition, INS is authorized under this Section to charge a user fee for participation in any or all of these pilot projects. User fees collected by INS are held in a separate Land Border Inspections Fee Account, as required under this Section, and may only be used in direct support and enhancement of land border inspection operations.

If SENTRI is established by INS and Customs as a permanent program, the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) Circular A-25, "User Charges," requires that the full cost of SENTRI's operation be recovered through a user fee because SENTRI provides "special benefits to an identifiable recipient beyond those that accrue to the general public."9 Currently, INS collects a $129 annual user fee from enrollees at Otay Mesa and the Stanton Street Bridge.10 In FY 1998, INS collected $325,170 in user fees from SENTRI enrollees at Otay Mesa. The INS does not currently collect a user fee from enrollees at either the Peace Bridge or the Ambassador Bridge.

SENTRI does not have a specifically dedicated funding source. In the past, SENTRI has received funding from the INS Commissioner's Contingency Fund as well as from other sources, including a grant from the Ford Foundation. Although Customs provides SENTRI with staffing resources, it does not provide any funding for equipment or supplies. Under the terms of the 1994 MOU between INS and Customs, "Equipment and supplies necessary for the DCL program will be funded and procured by INS through user fee funds collected." In FY 1998, SENTRI's actual budget expenditures totaled $5.3 million.11 The INS estimates that each SENTRI lane and accompanying enrollment center costs approximately $850,000 to construct.12

SENTRI's Management Structure

The SENTRI sites along the Southwest border are managed by a cross-agency project team that includes staff-level representatives from both INS and Customs. This team is responsible for managing only the Southwest border sites that are affiliated with the reinvention laboratory. Responsibilities of SENTRI's project team include developing rules for participation, formulating an operating budget, tracking budget expenditures, developing a marketing strategy, and assessing specific ports-of-entry for their suitability as future SENTRI sites. SENTRI's project team is jointly led by an INS-assigned project manager and a Customs-assigned project officer.

Oversight of SENTRI's project team is provided by a cross-agency Executive Review Board (ERB), made up of INS's Assistant Commissioner for Inspections, the Assistant Commissioner for Budget, and Customs' Director of the Passenger Operations Division. Responsibilities of the ERB include reviewing SENTRI's activities and performance as a reinvention laboratory, promoting cross-agency cooperation, and assisting SENTRI's project team in securing necessary resources. A JPR liaison provides ongoing assistance to both SENTRI's project team and ERB and is also responsible for monitoring and reporting SENTRI's performance.

SENTRI's sites along the Northern border are managed solely by INS, with limited operational support provided by Customs. The same project manager assigned by INS to co-lead SENTRI's project team also has responsibility for SENTRI's sites along the Northern border. The SENTRI project team is not directly responsible for the management of these Northern border sites.

At all sites, SENTRI's day-to-day operations, such as staffing the SENTRI lane, processing enrollment applications, and collecting performance data are managed by local port officials.

The Dedicated Commuter Lane Concept

Within the United States, DCLs date back to 1982 when the Peace Bridge established the first DCL in the country as part of its AUTOPASS program. In 1991, Blaine, and Point Roberts, Washington, both established DCLs as part of the Peace Arch Crossing Entry (PACE). Both the AUTOPASS and PACE programs are still in operation today, although INS has begun to phase out AUTOPASS and replace it with SENTRI. Currently, there are no plans by INS to replace the PACE program with SENTRI. At the end of FY 1998, there were roughly 30,000 vehicles enrolled in PACE.13 In 1993, INS also established a DCL program at the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, Michigan. In April 1999, this program was replaced with SENTRI.

Similar to SENTRI, these DCL programs allow pre-approved, low risk border crossers to enter the United States through an expedited inspection process. Unlike SENTRI, however, these programs are not automated and instead rely on decals affixed to a vehicle's windshield to verify eligibility for use of the DCL. Because of their lack of automated technology, these DCL programs are also less expensive to construct and operate compared to SENTRI. Other than SENTRI, PACE is the only DCL program that charges a user fee, currently set at $25 per year. Unlike SENTRI, which is managed by INS and Customs at the headquarters level, these DCL programs are each managed at the port level.

SENTRI represents INS's first attempt to develop a national DCL program with uniform eligibility criteria, enrollment procedures, and standardized regulations. In addition, SENTRI's planned national enrollment database will allow enrollees to cross the U.S. border at any port-of-entry where SENTRI has been implemented. Currently, individuals are eligible to participate only in the DCL programs in which they are specifically enrolled because enrollment databases at each port-of-entry are not linked to one another.

DCLs are not unique to the United States. Since 1991, Canada has been a partner with the United States in the PACE program at both Blaine and Point Roberts. In addition, Canada has recently introduced its own national DCL program, CANPASS, which is in operation at seven ports-of-entry, including the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge near Buffalo, New York, and Douglas, British Columbia. Open to both Canadian and U.S. citizens, CANPASS allows pre-approved, low risk border crossers to enter Canada with minimal inspection using identification cards to verify eligibility. Similar to SENTRI sites along the Northern border, CANPASS does not include any exit-control features. Originally, CANPASS charged a $25 annual user fee, but in May 1999 this fee was eliminated. Although no formal plans have been developed, INS eventually intends to integrate SENTRI with CANPASS along the Northern border so that commuters will be able to participate in both DCL programs.

  1. The National Partnership for Reinventing Government was formerly known as the National Performance Review.

  2. INS officials told us the Peace Bridge and Ambassador Bridge were also chosen as SENTRI sites because they were both participants in the North American Trade Automation Prototype (NATAP) pilot project. NATAP is designed to expedite commercial traffic using technology similar to SENTRI, including radio frequency transponders. Like SENTRI, NATAP is also a joint INS-Customs initiative.

  3. The Stanton Street Bridge has no general inspection lanes. With the exception of the SENTRI lanes, the Stanton Street Bridge runs only in the direction from the United States to Mexico.

  4. The Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) is a mainframe system that offers law enforcement agents access to several state-maintained criminal databases.

  5. Currently, Otay Mesa and the Stanton Street Bridge are the only SENTRI sites where INS and Customs inspectors share application and enrollment-related responsibilities. At the Ambassador Bridge and the Peace Bridge, only INS inspectors perform these duties.

  6. Enrollment data from the Otay Mesa and San Ysidro sites will be combined because the two ports, which are located only eight miles from one another, will share a joint enrollment center at Otay Mesa.

  7. This Act, first approved in 1991, originally restricted land border pilot projects to the Northern border and was set to expire in September 1993. In 1994, Congress lifted this restriction for California-based ports-of-entry and extended the Act until September 1996. In 1996, all restrictions were lifted and the Act was extended until September 30, 2000.

  8. Agency heads may recommend to OMB that "exceptions to the general policy be made" regarding OMB Circular A-25. All exceptions shall be for no more than four years unless renewed by OMB. To date, neither INS nor Customs has recommended to OMB that an exemption be made for SENTRI.

  9. This $129 annual user fee includes a $25 application fee, $24 fingerprint check fee assessed by the FBI, and an $80 "lane processing fee."

  10. This figure includes lane construction, purchase of equipment and supplies, and system maintenance. It does not include staffing or rental costs for SENTRI's enrollment center.

  11. Construction costs include equipment for both the SENTRI lane and enrollment center.

  12. Because PACE's user fee is assessed per vehicle rather than per individual, PACE only tracks the number of vehicles enrolled in the program.

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