Our U.S. ports of entry are still filled with holes

Tuesday, February 18, 2003 at 1:00am

Robert Cramer, head of special investigations at the General Accounting Office (GAO), recently appeared before the Senate Finance Committee to present lawmakers with a rather disquieting report that suggests it still is easy for individuals to steal into the United States using fake documents.

Agents from the GAO's office of investigation went undercover to see if they could enter the country at various ports of entry using counterfeit identification documents. And despite supposedly upgraded security in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the agents were able to enter undetected.

"Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and U.S. Customs Service officials never questioned the authenticity of the counterfeit documents," said Cramer.

The border guards who inspected the identification documents presented by the undercover agents did not recognize that holograms on fake driver's licenses were not authentic and that birth certificates had no watermarks. And it was not as if the fake documents were especially sophisticated.

Cramer testified that the false documents were created using off-the-shelf computer graphic software available to the public. "Bartenders could spot the kind of fake IDs that were used by investigators," said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Finance Committee.

The officials to whom Grassley referred argue that the GAO's undercover investigation was far from comprehensive. In fact, only three agents carried out the investigation. And they made only five trips across the U.S. border from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. Moreover, the agents apparently didn't fit the profile of the kinds of individuals to whom border security officials would pay special attention. Had they been foreigners, they assert, their chances of detection almost certainly would have been higher.

In fact, immigration inspectors at U.S. ports of entry arrested some 71,000 foreigners trying to enter the United States illegally last year, and most of the lawbreakers were caught with false documents.

Nevertheless, it is troubling that anyone can successfully skirt border security with counterfeit documents, whether the individual is foreign or American. It remains to be seen what action Grassley's committee will take and what recommendations it will pass along to the new Department of Homeland Security that now oversees both INS and Customs.

One worthwhile suggestion is to expand the government's SETRI

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