An audit by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) does not consistently conduct outbound inspections at Southwest and northern borders.
Outbound inspections are not mandated but $58 million in currency and 2,306 firearms were seized from individuals exiting the United States by CBP’s Office of Field Operations (OFO) in fiscal years 2018 through 2022, demonstrating the value of outbound inspections to CBP’s mission. Despite this, OIG found that officers at many locations are not conducting any outbound inspections and not making any seizures, resulting in missed opportunities to stop currency, firearms, explosives, ammunition, and narcotics from reaching transnational criminal organizations that perpetrate cross-border violence.
Violent criminal activity by transnational criminal organizations (TCO) in Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexico border has generated concerns in Congress that this violence will spill over into the United States. TCOs require a steady supply of firearms and ammunition to assert control over the territory where they operate, eliminate rival criminal organizations, and resist government operations. Further, bulk cash smuggling remains a favored means for TCOs to repatriate their illicit funds from or move funds into the United States to support their criminal operations. TCO networks on the Southwest border smuggle narcotics into the United States, while illegally exporting currency from drug proceeds and firearms into Mexico. TCO networks also use the northern border to smuggle high-potency drugs and currency both into and out of the United States. Additionally, new restrictive gun ownership laws in Canada create an opportunity for criminal organizations to exploit the increased firearm demand in Canada and create more extensive firearms trafficking networks to evade U.S.-Canada law enforcement efforts.
During OIG’s audit, inspectors visited 108 of 167 land border crossings on the Southwest and northern borders. The watchdog found the frequency of outbound inspections, inspection techniques, technology, and infrastructure in outbound inspection areas varied significantly between the two borders and among land border crossings. For example, most Southwest land border crossings conducted outbound inspections daily, whereas most northern border crossings conducted inspections less than once a month. Some land border crossings conducted inspections only during peak traffic times while other land border crossings conducted “pulse and surge” inspections, which are short term enforcement operations performed at specific land border crossings, either randomly or based on intelligence, to interdict identified threats.
OIG also found inconsistencies in the techniques officers used to conduct outbound inspections. Some used x-ray machines to scan cars exiting the United States but did not physically search a vehicle unless officers identified an anomaly on the x-ray, whereas others stopped each vehicle exiting the country, interviewed the occupants, obtained both currency and firearms declarations, searched identification in law enforcement databases, and physically inspected the vehicle.
There are also differences in the technology available at different land border crossings. Outbound inspection technology may include license plate readers, baggage scanning, technology, handheld devices, as well as vehicle x-ray scanners. As well as the disparity in the types of equipment available to them, officers also told OIG about wi-fi and connectivity issues that impacted their use of the technology.
OIG believes that these multiple inconsistencies occurred because there is no structured outbound inspection program with oversight from OFO headquarters. Field office and port of entry (POE) leadership instead often use professional judgment and other strategies to determine the frequency of inspections because they have wide discretion regarding when and how to conduct outbound inspections.
To their credit, many land border crossings OIG visited had their own internal standard operating procedures (SOP) for conducting outbound inspections. But these decentralized SOPs allow for a wide array of different requirements, some of which contradict each other.
Additionally, OIG found that OFO does not have performance metrics to measure the impact of outbound inspections or a comprehensive outbound inspection policy. In fact, OIG said OFO does not even know how many people or vehicles exit the country or the number of staffing hours and budget spent on outbound operations.
Historically, there has not been a specific budget allocation for outbound inspections, but it is worth noting that seized and forfeited currency is deposited in the Treasury Forfeiture Fund (TFF). The Department of the Treasury manages this fund with the mission of using forfeited assets to disrupt and dismantle criminal enterprises. Law enforcement agencies such as CBP can request money from the TFF to fund initiatives such as outbound inspections.
Given the renewed concern over TCO activity, the enacted FY 2023 budget for CBP dedicates funding to build infrastructure for outbound operations at land border crossings with the goal of identifying and seizing firearms and currency exiting the United States. But OIG found that POE leadership sometimes diverted resources from outbound operations to other priorities such as mandated inbound inspections.
OIG is making three recommendations as a result of its audit. First, that OFO conduct an analysis of the costs and benefits of outbound inspections and issue a report on the findings to assist it in determining whether it should establish an office responsible for outbound inspections, including budget and staffing needs, training, and program metrics; establish a minimum frequency of outbound inspections at land border crossings; and request more funding for outbound inspections. CBP agreed and said it has created the Outbound Enforcement Strategy Workgroup, which has already established goals addressing this recommendation and proposed the findings to the Executive Assistant Commissioner of OFO. In addition, CBP said OFO will establish a dedicated office with outbound oversight focusing on creating a robust outbound posture, dedicated outbound funding string, training unique to each modality, and reportable metrics. The estimated completion date is April 30, 2024.
OIG also recommends that OFO develop and institute a comprehensive policy for outbound inspections. CBP agreed and expects OFO to produce a comprehensive updated policy by April 30, 2024.
Finally, OIG is calling on OFO to assess infrastructure, internet connectivity, and technology at each land border crossing and ensure that officers have the necessary resources to conduct outbound inspections and can operate in a safe working environment. CBP agreed again and gave the same estimated completion date.