CBP Needs to Improve Efficiency in Trusted Traveler Enrollment Processes, Audit Says

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has designed and implemented trusted traveler enrollment processes, but the agency “could improve key areas to enhance and assess consistency and efficiency in those processes,” a congressional audit of the program said.

As of January 2014, there were about 2.5 million people enrolled in CBP’s four trusted traveler programs which provide expedited travel for preapproved, low-risk travelers and cargo. Enrollments more than quadrupled during the past 5 fiscal years, with about 43 percent of trusted travelers enrolled in Global Entry — operating at select air ports of entry (POE) — and about 38 percent enrolled in NEXUS, which is in operation at northern border POEs.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit submitted to Congress, “Trusted traveler entries into the United States increased from fiscal years 2009 through 2013. For example, entries through lanes for the Secure Electronic Network for TravelersRapid Inspection (SENTRI) program, operating at southern border POEs, increased from 5.9 million to 12.6 million vehicles.”

US citizens and foreign nationals seek to enroll in CBP’s trusted traveler programs through an application vetted by CBP and an in-person interview. But while CBP has taken steps to improve the efficiency of the application-vetting process by, for example, automating background checks, GAO said “CBP has not assessed the feasibility of various otherpractices for improving efficiency in enrollment processes, such as conducting group briefings for applicants on the programs. As of August 2013, 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.”

GAO said that, “Assessing the feasibility of various practices, consistent with program management standards, could better position CBP to improve application-processing times. Further, CBP has designed some processes for the trusted traveler applicant interview process to help ensure consistency across enrollment centers; however, GAO identified variations in interviews and application denial rates, indicating that interviews may not be conducted consistently across enrollment centers.”

For example, GAO said it “observed interviews that did not consistently follow procedures laid out in CBP guidance at 2 of the 3 centers where GAO observed interviews.”

GAO concluded that by “Establishing a mechanism for CBP officers to document the kinds of questions asked and the nature of the applicants’ responses could better position CBP to help ensure that interviews are conducted consistently. In addition, CBP has implemented trusted traveler programs that allow participating low-risk citizens from nine countries to use Global Entry kiosks at select air POEs.”

GAO also 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.”

“Without such documentation,” GAO said, “there is no institutional record that those countries’ procedures for vetting applicants help to ensure that only low-risk applicants are enrolled.”

GAO said, “Trusted travelers generally experience shorter wait times than regular travelers, and CBP spends less time inspecting trusted travelers at POEs than regular travelers.” GAO’s analysis of CBP data showed that primary inspections took about twice as long or longer on average for regular travelers than for trusted travelers at 11 of 14 SENTRI crossings and 12 of 18 NEXUS crossings in fiscal year 2013. GAO’s analysis of CBP data also indicated “that trusted travelers commit fewer border violations, such as smuggling, than regular travelers.”

Among GAO’s recommendations were that “CBP assess the feasibility of practices to improve application processing times, establish a mechanism to document types of interview questions asked and document information on foreign countries’ procedures.”

The Department of Homeland Security concurred with all of GAO’s recommendations except one to establish a mechanism to document interview questions asked because, among other reasons, DHS said it does not believe it should use scripted interview questions.

GAO said it “continues to believe in the need for such a mechanism.”

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