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Inspection of the Secure Electronic Network
for Travelers' Rapid Inspection

Report Number I-2000-019
June 2000


Traffic volume at U.S. land ports-of-entry has increased steadily as our shared borders with Mexico and Canada have become more open as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, United States and Canadian Accord on Our Shared Border, and other initiatives. From fiscal years (FY) 1995 through 1999, for example, the number of non-commercial vehicles entering the United States through a land port-of-entry increased by eight percent, from 118 million in FY 1995 to nearly 128 million in FY 1999.

The steady increase in non-commercial vehicular traffic has led to increased congestion and backups at many land ports-of-entry. These conditions are most evident along the Southwest border. Of the nearly 128 million non-commercial vehicles that entered the United States in FY 1999 at a land port-of-entry, more than 85 million entered at land ports-of-entry along the Southwest border. Individuals seeking entrance at high volume land ports-of-entry along the Southwest border often wait 45 minutes or more during peak hours before they are inspected. Such lengthy delays can be both irritating and costly to commuters and the traveling public.

Since the early 1990s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the United States Customs Service (Customs) have struggled to reduce congestion and commuter wait times at land ports-of-entry without compromising border integrity. As part of this effort, INS's Commissioner set a service-wide goal in FY 1999 to reduce commuter wait times to "no more than 20 minutes 80 percent of the time" at all land ports-of-entry. In attempting to reduce commuter wait times, past strategies have included increasing inspection staff at the port, expanding port hours and increasing the number of inspection lanes.

In FY 1995, with assistance from the Justice Performance Review (JPR), INS and Customs jointly developed the Secure Electronic Network for Travelers1 Rapid Inspection (SENTRI) pilot project. Other federal agencies were also involved in SENTRI's development, including the Departments of Transportation (DOT) and State (DOS) as well as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). SENTRI was designed to test the feasibility of using automated technology as a way of reducing commuter wait times without compromising border integrity. Participation in SENTRI is open only to pre-approved low risk border crossers in non-commercial vehicles.

Under the terms of a 1994 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding the implementation of dedicated commuter lanes (DCLs), INS and Customs share joint responsibility for SENTRI's management and operation. However, because SENTRI is primarily funded by INS through the collection of a user fee and other INS funding sources, SENTRI has become, for practical purposes, an INS-led pilot project supported with limited staffing from Customs.

This review: (1) assesses whether SENTRI has met its objectives of facilitating legal entry into the United States for enrolled participants and of maintaining border integrity in the SENTRI lane; (2) considers SENTRI's impact on both commuter wait times and border integrity in the general inspection lanes; and (3) examines SENTRI's current challenges, including funding, performance evaluation, and long-range planning.

This review primarily assesses SENTRI at Otay Mesa, California, and at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, New York. This review does not fully consider SENTRI at either the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, Michigan, or at the Stanton Street Bridge in El Paso, Texas, because both of these sites became operational following our field visits. In addition, this review does not fully consider San Ysidro, California, because this pilot site was not operational at the conclusion of our work. This review does not specifically assess the efforts of Customs or other federal agencies involved in SENTRI's management or planning, nor does this review assess other land border pilot projects, including the Peace Arch Crossing Entry (PACE) program. Finally, this review does not specifically assess SENTRI's cost-effectiveness or the appropriateness and effectiveness of specific technology employed by SENTRI. Appendix I details our inspection methodology.

  1. Federal statute requires that each individual undergo an inspection by U.S. officials to determine admissibility into the United States. INS, a component of the United States Department of Justice, and Customs, a component of the United States Department of Treasury, share responsibility for conducting inspections at U.S. ports of entry.
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