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Monday, October 3, 2022

DHS’ Outer Ring of Border Security: Pushing Homeland Security Beyond US Borders

Through the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States learned the vital lesson that the nation cannot wait until a terrorist act has happened to take act. Consequently, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has implemented a number of international programs, including the visa security program and preclearance operations, to catch threats early on while facilitating travel.

On Tuesday, the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security held a hearing to assess whether DHS’ programs have been effective in mitigating threats to the homeland, particularly suspected terrorists and foreign fighters.

“Pushing our borders out gives the nation’s security professionals the time and space to interdict plots before they reach the homeland,” said subcommittee chairman Candice Miller (R-Mich). “The vetting these programs do has created an ‘outer ring of border security,’ which has become even more important due to the significant and growing threat that fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) pose to our nation.”

According to a recent United Nations report, the number of foreign fighters leaving their home nations to join extremist groups in Iraq, Syria and other nations has hit record levels, with estimates of over 25,000 foreign fighters coming from nearly 100 countries.

US intelligence officials estimate more than 150 US citizens have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to join ISIS, raising concerns that these fighters will return to the US to conduct attacks.

“These fighters could be just one flight away — bringing with them the skills, training, ideology, and commitment to killing Americans they learned overseas. This is why it is so important that DHS officers and attachés abroad conduct security operations,” Miller said.

CBP: preclearance operations

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employs preclearance operations as part of a layered approach to security. The preclearance program allows CBP officers stationed abroad to screen and make admissibility decisions about passengers and their accompanying goods or baggage heading to the United States before they leave a foreign port.

“Through preclearance, CBP is able to work with foreign law enforcement officials and commercial carriers to prevent the boarding of potentially high-risk travelers, leveraging its full legal authority, as opposed to a purely advisory role,” said John Wagner, CBP Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations.

Wagner added, “Preclearance also provides unique facilitation benefits, allowing precleared passengers to proceed to their final destination without further CBP processing, as if they had arrived on a domestic flight.”

At present, CBP has 15 preclearance locations in six countries: Ireland, Aruba, The Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). However, just last week, DHS announced its intention to expand its preclearance program to 10 foreign airports in nine countries, as part of the agency’s efforts to improve security while facilitating travel.

The 10 airports being considered are: Brussels Airport, Belgium; Punta Cana Airport, Dominican Republic; Narita International Airport, Japan; Amsterdam Airport Schipol, Netherlands; Oslo Airport, Norway; Madrid-Barajas Airport, Spain; Stockholm Arlanda Airport, Sweden; Istanbul Ataturk Airport, Turkey; and London Heathrow Airport and Manchester Airport, United Kingdom.

“I want totake every opportunity we have to push our homeland security out beyond our borders so that we are not defending the homeland from the one-yard line,” said DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson. “Preclearance is a win-win for the traveling public. It provides aviation and homeland security, and it reduces wait times upon arrival at the busiest US airports.”

According to Wager, in Fiscal Year 2014, CBP officers processed 17.4 million travelers for entry into the US through the existing 15 preclearance locations, and the agency expects to clear nearly 20 million passengers through the additional 10 locations.

While preclearance operations purportedly allow CBP to streamline border processing procedures, increase security, and facilitate travel, expansion of the program has caused much consternation on Capitol Hill over failure to consult with stakeholders and Congress.

In November 2013, for example, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Penn.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), introduced bipartisan legislation to block the opening of a preclearance facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport in the UAE, arguing the facility would help foreign airlines and hurts American jobs.

“It’s ridiculous that US government policy would encourage travelers to use foreign airlines instead of US carriers,” Meehan said. “While pursuing strong border and customs policies, we should not be hurting American workers by giving an advantage to a state-subsidized foreign airline. This bipartisan bill will correct this misguided policy.”

“It’s absolutely outrageous,” said DeFazio, “that DHS wants to use taxpayer dollars to fund a facility in Abu Dhabi that would give a competitive advantage to the UAE’s state-owned airline at the expense of US airlines and airline employees. DHS needs to get its priorities straight. Every day, hundreds of thousands of American travelers wait in long customs lines at our nation’s airports. Funds would be better spent reducing wait times at US airports for US passengers.”

Airline industry groups, including the Air Line Pilots Association and Airlines for America (A4A), echoed similar concerns. A4A president and CEO Nicholas Calio commented, “A4A believes that CBP should focus on resolving lengthy wait times at US international airports before opening new pre-clearance facilities overseas.”

However, earlier this year, DHS announced CBP officers at Abu Dhabi International Airport had prohibited 450 people—including suspected terrorists— from boarding flights to the US. Johnson highlighted the effort as an example of the US’ success in pushing out homeland security beyond our borders.

“Preclearance has been used as a security screening and trade facilitation tool since the early 1950’s, and since 9/11, the security value of these operations has only been heightened,” Miller said. “However, expansion of preclearance has to be done in such a way that supports both our security and facilitation objectives and does not disadvantage our domestic airlines at the same time.”

Visa Waiver Program

One of CBP’s first lines of defense is preventing those who intend to do harm in United States from ever obtaining a visa and boarding a flight destined for the US. CBP’s chief mechanism for doing this is the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which enables eligible citizens or nationals of designated countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without first obtaining a visa.

The VWP constitutes one of a few exceptions under the Immigration and Nationality Act in which foreign nationals are admitted into the United States without a valid visa.

VWP applicants apply for travel authorization through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). Through ESTA, CBP vets applicants in advance of travel to the United States. DHS recently added security enhancements to ESTA, which now requires that applicants to include other names or citizenships, parents’ names, contact and employment information and city of birth.

“These improvements are designed to provide an additional layer of security for the VWP and increase our ability to distinguish between lawful applicants and individuals of concern,” Wagner said.

However, as Homeland Security Today has reported on multiple occasions, a heated debate has erupted over whether the VWP could be exploited by foreign fighters traveling to Syria to fight for jihadist groups and then returning to the US, possibly to conduct an attack.

In fact, following the terrorist attacks on the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the VWP hit the headlines, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) calling the VWP the “’Achilles’ heel of America.”

Furthermore, Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Scott Perry (R-Penn.) introduced legislation in September that would suspend the visa waiver program for countries with citizens that have joined the Islamic State (IS). The lawmakers believe the legislation would prevent potential terrorists working with ISIS from entering the US.

"If we do nothing to close this loophole, and allow a terrorist to carry out an attack on our homeland, the impacts will be devastating. Action is needed now," Gabbard said.

"We all learned on September 11, 2001 and in Benghazi two years ago that waiting to act until terrorists plan – or execute – an attack will cost American lives," Perry said. "Terrorists with Western passports pose a clear risk the United States."

The Key: partnerships with other nations

While controversy continues over the possibility that the VWP could become a gateway for terrorists trying to enter the US to conduct an attack, the program has been vital mechanism for strengthening US relationships with its partners.

One of the most important efforts to strengthen the United States’ homeland security posture is collaboration with neighboring countries and partners,” according to Alan D. Bersin, DHS Assistant Secretary of International Affairs and Chief Diplomatic Officer, Office of Policy.

Bersin said, “Through international collaboration—in particular our work at our land and maritime borders with our North American partners—we not only enhance our ability to prevent terrorism and transnational crime, but we also leverage the resources of our international partners to more efficiently and cost-effectively secure global trade and travel.”

Canada and Mexico, for example, Canada are the United States’ first and third largest trade partners and the first and second largest destination for US goods. Partnerships with the two countries, as well as the Caribbean nations, have yielded both economic and security benefits.

Currently, DHS is working closely with Canada to implement the Beyond the Border Declaration and Action Plan for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness. Similarly, with Mexico, DHS continues work through the Declaration on 21st Century Border Management and the High Level Economic Dialogue toward securing the border while encouraging legitimate trade, travel, and commerce.

According to Bersin, DHS’ engagement with its international partners in the land, air, and sea domains—and beyond borders in cyberspace—will be essential in helping the US effectively carry out its core missions.

“Our close partnerships with counterparts in Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean have contributed to a more secure and economically prosperous homeland,”Bersin said. “The expedited movement of lawful trade and travel through our ports of entry is central to DHS’s mission and a key component of our nation’s economic security interests.”

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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