Return to the USDOJ/OIG Home Page
Return to the Table of Contents

Inspection of the Secure Electronic Network
for Travelers' Rapid Inspection

Report Number I-2000-019
June 2000


June 20, 2000 
SUBJECT: Inspection of the Secure Electronic Network
for Travelers' Rapid Inspection (SENTRI), A-98-35

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG), Inspections Division, has completed an inspection of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's (INS) SENTRI pilot project. The INS, along with the United States Customs Service (Customs) and several other federal agencies, initiated SENTRI in 1995 as an alternative solution to the growing traffic problems at major land ports-of-entry. SENTRI is intended to expedite the primary inspection process for low-risk, pre-screened border crossers in non-commercial vehicles without compromising border integrity. SENTRI is operational at four ports-of-entry: Otay Mesa, California; the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, New York; the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, Michigan; and the Stanton Street Bridge in El Paso, Texas. Over the next two years, INS has plans to expand SENTRI to several additional ports-of-entry, including San Ysidro, California, the largest and busiest port-of-entry in the United States. SENTRI's Southwest border sites form one of the Justice Performance Review's (JPR) reinvention laboratories.

In our exit conference, we discussed whether the Northern border SENTRI sites are part of the SENTRI pilot project. INS and JPR strongly stated that the Northern border sites are not true SENTRI sites, but rather automated Dedicated Commuter Lanes that use some, but not all, SENTRI technology. This is not a distinction that INS has followed in the course of its operations and communications. Throughout the course of our inspection, we have amassed a significant amount of documentation that the Peace Bridge and the Ambassador Bridge SENTRI sites have been a part of the INS SENTRI program. Our evidence on this point includes your congressional testimony; the Commissioner's Performance Goals for 1999; the 2000 Reinvention Impact Goals; the October 1999 INS Automation Initiatives Report; the official INS website; and our interviews with many INS headquarters and field officials. In response to INS and JPR concerns, however, we did add language in our report clarifying that the Northern border SENTRI sites are not a part of JPR's reinvention laboratory.

Overall, our findings demonstrate that SENTRI has met its mission of expediting the primary inspection process for enrollees without compromising border integrity. At both Otay Mesa and the Peace Bridge, SENTRI has led to lower commuter wait times for those using the SENTRI lane. No major border violations have been reported in any of the SENTRI lanes at the four SENTRI sites. The SENTRI pilot project deserves credit for its innovative approach to the land border inspection process and for its cross-agency coordination.

Our review, nevertheless, identified several areas where improvement is necessary to ensure SENTRI's continued viability. INS has not resolved critical issues regarding the future of the SENTRI pilot project. Although most officials believe that SENTRI will eventually become a permanent program, no plans have been developed for SENTRI's anticipated transition from a JPR reinvention laboratory to a permanent program. This lack of long-range planning leaves critical issues unresolved, including the future of the Northern border sites and the management structure for SENTRI as a permanent program.

The SENTRI pilot project needs to develop a more comprehensive framework for evaluating proposed SENTRI sites in order to provide a stronger and more objective basis for site selection decisions by INS and Customs. As a part of this process, methods for projecting enrollment levels at proposed sites should be strengthened, as the current methods are inadequate to assess the suitability of proposed SENTRI sites.

Funding remains a key challenge for SENTRI. Although SENTRI is intended to be self-supporting through the collection of a user fee, the current user fee is inadequate to recover full operating costs of the program. An increase in the user fee, however, could seriously impact enrollment. At the Northern border sites, where enrollees currently do not pay a fee, there are indications that commuters would resist paying any fee at all. No permanent funding source other than the collection of the user fee has been identified. Funding shortfalls have led to several operational challenges that have hampered SENTRI's ability to carry out its mission.

Although no major violations have been detected in the SENTRI lane, the SENTRI pilot project can make improvements to ensure that border integrity will continue to be maintained in each current and future SENTRI site. We identified problems with data integrity that have limited the extent to which inspectors at Otay Mesa have been able to rely on SENTRI's enrollment information as a tool for ensuring that border integrity in the SENTRI lane is maintained. Furthermore, the failure by the inspectors at the Peace Bridge to consistently perform SENTRI's required administrative procedures may undermine SENTRI's continued ability to maintain border integrity at that pilot site. Although one of SENTRI's performance goals for the Southwest border sites is to enhance border integrity in the general inspection lanes, it is unclear from the available data whether this has been accomplished.

The SENTRI pilot project has not been fully evaluated by INS, Customs, or JPR. While Customs did conduct an operational review of SENTRI at Otay Mesa, semiannual evaluations of the pilot project required by an INS-Customs Memorandum of Understanding have not been performed, nor have annual audits of the Southwest border sites called for in SENTRI's performance plan. In addition, SENTRI's impact on commuter wait times has not been adequately assessed for the general inspection lanes. These evaluations are important both for assessing SENTRI's performance and for determining that SENTRI meets regulatory requirements.

Our report offers eight recommendations to improve the SENTRI pilot project. These improvements are necessary for ensuring SENTRI's success at existing and future sites and should, therefore, be made before SENTRI is expanded. INS should develop and implement a plan for recovering SENTRI's full operating costs at all sites. INS should work with Customs and JPR to develop and implement long-range plans regarding SENTRI's status beyond its scheduled term as a reinvention laboratory.

We further recommend that INS require inspectors to consistently follow SENTRI's existing audit procedures and consistently perform SENTRI's administrative procedures at each site. In addition, we recommend that INS perform semiannual evaluations of SENTRI's full operations; reassess SENTRI's performance plan; revise the current framework for evaluating and selecting proposed SENTRI sites; and strengthen current methods for projecting enrollment levels at proposed sites.

We sent copies of the draft report to your office on April 14, 2000, with a request for written comments. Your June 2, 2000, response addressed each of the eight recommendations. We have attached your response as Appendix XII.

Our analysis of your response describes the additional actions needed for each of the recommendations and can be found in Appendix XIII. Please provide the additional information by September 1, 2000.

We also sent copies of the draft report to JPR on April 14, 2000. We have attached JPR's June 16, 2000, response as Appendix XIV. Our analysis of JPR's response can be found in Appendix XV.

We appreciate the cooperation that your staff extended to us as we conducted our review. If you have any suggestions as to how we might improve our review process, or if we can provide you with any additional information, please let us know.


cc:     Kathleen Stanley
Immigration and Naturalization Service

Robert F. Diegelman
Justice Performance Review

Vickie L. Sloan
Departmental Audit Liaison Office

Return to the USDOJ/OIG Home Page
Return to the Table of Contents