Government Review Faults Efficiency in Trusted-Travel Programs
Customs and Border Protection Not Able to Keep Up with New Applications
A government audit and analysis of the nation’s trusted traveler programs revealed a variety of shortcomings as well as a significant rise in popularity, according to a report released Friday.
The Government Accountability Office, which audits and evaluates government services under the auspices of the United States Congress, released findings from a review of the Customs and Border Protection agency’s practices and policies that showed that enrollment in trusted-traveler programs quadrupled in the last five years, but it also revealed some significant issues that could allow unqualified applicants into the border.
Customs and Border Protection, a unit within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, offers four trusted traveler programs, Global Entry, Nexus, Sentri, and Free and Secure Trade, the latter for freight. All four programs provide for expedited travel for pre-approved and vetted low-risk travelers and cargo through dedicated lanes and kiosks at various points of entry to the United States. U.S. citizens as well as some foreign nationals are eligible.
Global Entry, a trusted-traveler program that expedites the entry of air travelers, hit the one million-member mark in January, according to the GAO.
Global Entry costs $100 for a five-year membership and several credit card companies including American Express reimburse the fee. Applicants provide personal information similar to that on a passport application as well as travel history and submit to a criminal-background check. Fingerprints are taken at the in-person interview as they are required to use the biometrics-based system, which allows members to bypass a passport-control queue with hundreds of other people and use a kiosk with little to no wait.
The study showed that there were significant benefits to those who enroll.
“Trusted travelers generally experience shorter wait times than regular travelers,” said the agency in the report.
PROBLEMS IN A TRUSTED-TRAVELER PARADISE
Meanwhile, the GAO identified several issues that are holding the programs back.
Currently, citizens of nine foreign countries are eligible to use U.S. trusted-traveler program services such as Global Entry kiosks. The agency reported that “CBP has discussed information about other countries’ operational procedures for sharing applicant-vetting results, but has not documented this information for seven of the countries, consistent with internal control standards.”
The GAO said that, without this information, it is impossible to “ensure that only low-risk applicants are enrolled.”
In addition, the agency pointed out that trusted-traveler interviews are not conducted consistently from interviewer to interviewer as well as across various enrollment centers. The GAO identified “variations in interviews and application denial rates, indicating that interviews may not be conducted consistently across enrollment centers.”
Finally, the popularity of the various trusted-traveler programs has created a huge backlog in applications and greatly increased the time someone must wait for approval.
As of August 2013, the time at which the review was being conducted. CBP had a backlog of pending applications, as there were about 90,000 applications pending CBP vetting, and another 33,000 applicants who had not scheduled an interview. The CBP has made significant improvements, however, in automating applicants’ background checks.
The report made numerous recommendations including that the Customs and Border Protection agency “improve application processing times, establish a mechanism to document types of interview questions, asked and document information on foreign countries’ procedures.” The report stated that the Department of Homeland Security did not agree with the recommendation to document interview questions, stating that the interview process was “equivalent to a border crossing inspection.” Citing the backlog and need to conduct interviews in an efficient manner, the agency said that this would “force a line of questioning” that would not be “relevant” or applicable to most applicants and needlessly lengthen the duration of each interview.
(Photo: Accura Media Group)