In early 2019, journalists, advocates, and attorneys alleged in the media that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) revoked their Trusted Traveler Program (TTP) memberships or took other actions to harass them because of their work related to the migrant caravan.
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently completed a review where it looked specifically at the circumstances surrounding the TTP membership revocation of three U.S. citizens. OIG found that CBP revoked these memberships after discovering links to information that it considered derogatory and a potential security risk.
According to OIG, in two of the revocations, CBP did not assess the quality or accuracy of the potentially derogatory information at any step of the process.
CBP applies criteria in the TTP Handbook and the “Strict Standard Policy”3 to determine whether individuals are sufficiently “low-risk” to participate in the TTPs. For example, CBP disqualifies applicants with suspected links to terrorism or who are under investigation by law enforcement — but CBP may also deny membership to anyone who “cannot satisfy CBP of his or her low-risk status or meet other program requirements,” and “[g]enerally, if low-risk status cannot be determined, the application must be denied.”
CBP’s TTP Vetting Center conducts “recurrent vetting” to confirm that existing TTP members remain eligible for the programs. Every 24 hours, biographical information for all TTP members is automatically checked against law enforcement databases to identify new information that could affect TTP eligibility.
Denied applicants and revoked TTP members may submit requests for reconsideration through the TTP Ombudsman.
OIG found that during the migrant caravan period, CBP researched many individuals suspected of participating in violence, illegal border crossings, or other criminal activity, or who CBP believed might have information about other individuals’ illegal activity. During this research, CBP officers in two different offices discovered that some caravan associates were TTP members.
CBP officers revoked the memberships of three caravan associates after identifying potentially derogatory information. The TTP Vetting Center revoked the memberships of two caravan associates identified by CBP’s National Targeting Center (NTC), and a local TTP enrollment center revoked the membership of one caravan associate identified by a CBP Intelligence Targeting Unit (ITU) in San Diego.
The NTC determined through its research that five caravan associates were TTP members. The NTC discovered information it considered derogatory for two of the five caravan associates with TTP membership. Consistent with its practice for caravan associates who were not TTP members, the NTC documented the potentially derogatory information in the migrant caravan workspace. Additionally, the NTC wanted to flag the potentially derogatory information for the TTP Vetting Center, so that the office could determine whether the caravan associates were still eligible for TTP membership.
However, NTC officials told OIG they did not know what information the TTP Vetting Center would need to make its determination or how they should provide that information to the TTP Vetting Center. In light of this unfamiliarity, an NTC official contacted the TTP Vetting Center to learn what type of information would warrant removing someone from TTPs, but did not receive a response. NTC officials also told OIG they did not know whether the information they found about the individuals would disqualify them from the TTPs.
In addition, the CBP ITU also researched individuals associated with the migrant caravan. In one case under OIG’s review, a CBP officer took one individual’s TTP membership card, and instructed them to schedule an interview with a local TTP enrollment center. However, before an interview was scheduled, the TTP Vetting Center revoked the individual’s membership.
OIG said CBP did not meaningfully assess the quality or accuracy of information. The watchdog’s own internet searches found publicly available information indicating that the connections discovered might relate to advocacy work and not nefarious activities. The audit also found that CBP did not provide the caravan associates with an opportunity to submit clarifying or exculpatory information to overturn the revocations.
Although OIG found evidence that CBP’s process for evaluating this information was flawed, the watchdog found no direct evidence that CBP collected this information to harass or intimidate individuals associated with the caravan. Nevertheless, OIG said CBP’s process for revoking TTP memberships raises concerns that decisions can be based on inaccurate, incomplete, or unsubstantiated information. OIG therefore calls for CBP to evaluate the accuracy of the decisions made, and also to issue guidance or training to all CBP officials who have the authority to revoke TTP memberships.
CBP agreed and noted that in August 2021, CBP published updated standard operating procedures, “The National Targeting Center – Passenger Division, Trusted Traveler Vetting, Standard Operating Procedures.” CBP is also developing a Memorandum and Muster to ensure that the appropriate CBP vetting personnel are aware of the program and procedural updates.