Border Patrol:

Checkpoints Contribute to Border Patrol's Mission, but More Consistent Data Collection and Performance Measurement Could Improve Effectiveness

GAO-09-824: Published: Aug 31, 2009. Publicly Released: Aug 31, 2009.

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The U.S. Border Patrol, part of the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP), operates checkpoints on U.S. roads, mainly in the southwest border states where most illegal entries occur. As part of a three-tiered strategy to maximize detection and apprehension of illegal aliens, Border Patrol agents at checkpoints screen vehicles for illegal aliens and contraband. GAO was asked to assess (1) checkpoint performance and factors affecting performance, (2) checkpoint performance measures, (3) community impacts considered in checkpoint placement and design, and (4) the impact of checkpoint operations on nearby communities. GAO work included a review of Border Patrol data and guidance; visits to checkpoints and communities in five Border Patrol sectors across four southwest border states, selected on the basis of size, type, and volume, among other factors; and discussions with community members and Border Patrol officials in headquarters and field locations.

Checkpoints have contributed to the Border Patrol's ability to seize illegal drugs, apprehend illegal aliens, and screen potential terrorists; however, several factors have impeded higher levels of performance. Checkpoint contributions included over one-third of the Border Patrol's total drug seizures, according to Border Patrol data. Despite these and other contributions, Border Patrol officials said that additional staff, canine teams, and inspection technology were needed to increase checkpoint effectiveness. Border Patrol officials said they plan to increase these resources. The Border Patrol established three performance measures to report the results of checkpoint operations, and while they provide some insight into checkpoint activity, they do not indicate if checkpoints are operating efficiently and effectively. In addition, GAO found that a lack of management oversight and unclear checkpoint data collection guidance resulted in the overstatement of checkpoint performance results in fiscal year 2007 and 2008 agency performance reports, as well as inconsistent data collection practices at checkpoints. These factors hindered management's ability to monitor the need for program improvement. Internal control standards require that agencies accurately record and report data necessary to demonstrate agency performance, and that they provide proper oversight of these activities. The Border Patrol generally followed its guidelines for considering community safety and convenience in four recent checkpoint placement and design decisions, including the proposed permanent checkpoint on Interstate 19 in Arizona. Current and projected traffic volume was a key factor in the design of the proposed Interstate 19 checkpoint, but was not considered when determining the number of inspection lanes for three recently completed checkpoints in Texas due to a lack of guidance. Having explicit guidance on using current and projected traffic volumes could help ensure that future checkpoints are appropriately sized. Individuals GAO contacted who live near checkpoints generally supported their operations but expressed concerns regarding property damage that occurs when illegal aliens and smugglers circumvent checkpoints to avoid apprehension. The Border Patrol is not yet using performance measures it has developed to examine the extent that checkpoint operations affect quality of life in surrounding communities. The Border Patrol uses patrols and technology to detect and respond to circumventions, but officials said that other priorities sometimes precluded positioning more than a minimum number of agents on checkpoint circumvention routes. The Border Patrol has not documented the number of agents needed to address circumventions at the proposed I-19 checkpoint. Given the concerns of nearby residents regarding circumventions, conducting a workforce planning needs assessment at the checkpoint design stage could help ensure that resources needed for addressing such activity are planned for and deployed.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the reliability and accountability of checkpoint performance results to the Congress and the public, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection should establish milestones for determining the feasibility of a checkpoint performance model that would allow the Border Patrol to compare apprehensions and seizures to the level of illegal activity passing through the checkpoint undetected.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Customs and Border Protection

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our review of Border Patrol traffic checkpoints, we found, among other things, that the Border Patrol had developed some useful measures of checkpoint performance, but the agency lacked a model or method that would allow the agency to compare the number of apprehensions and seizures made at the checkpoint to the level of illegal activity passing through the checkpoint undetected. The lack of this information challenged the Border Patrol's ability to measure checkpoint effectiveness and provide public accountability. We recommended that the Border Patrol establish timelines for determining the feasibility of such a checkpoint performance model. On February 23, 2011, Border Patrol reported that the agency had recently awarded a contract to the Department of Homeland Security Center for Excellence to study checkpoint performance, including developing a checkpoint performance model. In June 2013, Border Patrol reported provided documentation showing that the agency had considered the checkpoint performance models proposed by the National Center for Border Security and Immigration--the DHS Center for Excellence--but determined it is not currently feasible to use the proposed models due to cost prohibitions and other factors. This action is responsive to the intent of our recommendation to study the feasibility of a checkpoint performance model.

    Recommendation: To improve the reliability and accountability of checkpoint performance results to the Congress and the public, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection should establish internal controls for management oversight of the accuracy, consistency, and completeness of checkpoint performance data.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Customs and Border Protection

    Status: Open

    Comments: In our review of Border Patrol traffic checkpoints, we found inconsistencies in the way field agents collected and entered performance data into the checkpoint information system. As a result, data reported in the system were unreliable. We recommended that Border Patrol establish internal controls to ensure the accuracy, consistency, and completeness of checkpoint performance data. In October 2009, the Border Patrol reported internal control solutions were underway, which would primarily involve upgrading its existing checkpoint data systems and creating a checkpoint data oversight protocol. In June 2013, Border Patrol reported that it was developing a redesigned checkpoint information system that should address the data errors and issues identified by our report. The agency also noted that it was exploring ways to implement a data oversight procedure and training on the importance of accurate data collection. In July 2014, the Border Patrol reported that the recommendation was being addressed in various phases, with a new expected completion date of November 2014. Once implemented, these actions should address our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the reliability and accountability of checkpoint performance results to the Congress and the public, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection should implement the quality of life measures that have already been identified by the Border Patrol to evaluate the impact that checkpoints have on local communities. Implementing these measures would include identifying appropriate data sources available at the local, state, or federal level, and developing guidance for how data should be collected and used in support of these measures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Customs and Border Protection

    Status: Open

    Comments: In our review of Border Patrol traffic checkpoints, we found that the Border Patrol had identified some measures to evaluate the impact that checkpoints have on local communities in terms of quality of life, but Border Patrol had not implemented the measures. As a result, the Border Patrol lacked information on how checkpoint operations could affect nearby communities. In October 2009, the Border Patrol reported that it was reevaluating its checkpoint performance measures, including quality of life measures. In June 2012, Border Patrol reported that the University of Arizona and the University of Texas, El Paso had completed a study for CBP on checkpoints. This study made several recommendations to Border Patrol on evaluating the impact of checkpoints on local communities using quantitative measures and with maintaining regular contact with the public to elicit opinions on experiences with the checkpoint, both positive and negative. The Border Patrol noted it intends to develop quantitative measures on community impact, such as on public safety and quality of life, using information collected in the new checkpoint information system. Border Patrol also noted that it is considering the budgetary feasibility of conducting a survey of checkpoint travelers to gather detailed information about the community and impact metrics that are of highest importance to the public. In addition, Border Patrol reported it is considering the practicality and budgetary feasibility of implementing an expedited lane for regular and pre-approved travelers. In July 2014, the Border Patrol revised the expected completion date for this recommendation to March 2015, noting that it plans to request ideas from the field commanders on what the agency could measure that would accurately depict the impact of checkpoints on the community. These actions, once completed, should address our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the reliability and accountability of checkpoint performance results to the Congress and the public, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection should use the information generated from the quality of life measures in conjunction with other relevant factors to inform resource allocations and address identified impacts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Customs and Border Protection

    Status: Open

    Comments: In our review of Border Patrol traffic checkpoints, we found that while the Border Patrol's national strategy cites the importance of assessing the community impact of Border Patrol operations, the implementation of such measures was lacking in terms of checkpoint operations. We recommended that Border Patrol implement such measures in areas of community concern to provide greater attention and priority in Border Patrol operational and staffing decisions to address any existing issues. In October 2009, the Border Patrol reported that once it had completed an upgrade of its existing checkpoint data systems and had reevaluated its checkpoint performance measures, the agency would begin using information garnered by these performance measures to inform future resource allocation decisions. Once implemented, these actions should address the intent of our recommendation. This was expected to be completed by September 30, 2010, but due to budgetary and other issues, the checkpoint system upgrades were not yet completed as of June 2013. Border Patrol reported to us in June 2013 that the redesigned and upgraded checkpoint information system was expected to be implemented in September 2014. In July, 2014, however, Border Patrol revised its expected completion date to March 2016.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the checkpoint design process results in checkpoints that are sized and resourced to meet operational and community needs, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection should require that current and expected traffic volumes be considered by the Border Patrol when determining the number of inspection lanes at new permanent checkpoints, that traffic studies be conducted and documented, and that these requirements be explicitly documented in Border Patrol checkpoint design guidelines and standards.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Customs and Border Protection

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our review of Border Patrol traffic checkpoints, we found that the Border Patrol did not conduct traffic studies when designing three recently constructed checkpoints. As a result, we could not determine if the Border Patrol complied with its checkpoint design guidelines to consider current and future traffic volumes when determining the number of inspection lanes at three recently constructed checkpoints. In the absence of documented traffic studies, the Border Patrol could not determine if the number of inspection lanes at each of these checkpoints was consistent with current and projected traffic volumes, or if a different number of lanes would have been more appropriate. We recommended that the Border Patrol require that traffic studies be conducted and documented for all new permanent checkpoints, and that traffic volumes be considered by the Border Patrol when determining the number of inspection lanes at these new checkpoints. On October 28, 2009, the Border Patrol finalized an addendum to the Border Patrol Facilities Design Standard, which requires the Border Patrol to acquire, document, and utilize traffic study data collected by the State Departments of Transportation regarding current and projected traffic volumes on roadways where permanent checkpoints are to be constructed. The traffic studies will be documented by the Border Patrol and utilized as the baseline requirement to determine the number of inspection lanes at new permanent checkpoints.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the checkpoint design process results in checkpoints that are sized and resourced to meet operational and community needs, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection should, in connection with planning for new or upgraded checkpoints, conduct a workforce planning needs assessment for checkpoint staffing allocations to determine the resources needed to address anticipated levels of illegal activity around the checkpoint.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Customs and Border Protection

    Status: Open

    Comments: In our review of Border Patrol traffic checkpoints, we found that Border Patrol's checkpoint strategy to push illegal aliens and smugglers to areas around checkpoints-which could include nearby communities-underscores the need for the Border Patrol to ensure that it deploys sufficient resources and staff to these areas. We recommended that Border Patrol conduct a needs assessment when planning for a new or upgraded checkpoint in order to better ensure that officials consider the potential impact of the checkpoint on the community and plan for a sufficient number of agents and resources. In October 2009, Border Patrol reported that the agency was evaluating its checkpoint policy regarding the establishment of a new checkpoint or the upgrade of an old checkpoint, and checkpoint policy changes would be finalized by September 30, 2010. Border Patrol also reported that checkpoint system upgrades that capture data on checkpoint performance would help management determine future resource needs at checkpoints. In June 2013, Border Patrol reported that due to budget and other issues, the checkpoint system upgrade had not been completed, and the rewritten checkpoint data protocol had not been approved. In June 2013, Border Patrol reported that as part of the checkpoint study conducted by the DHS Centers of Excellence, the Centers created checkpoint simulation tools that would help inform resource allocations when determining the number of inspection lanes on current or new checkpoints. The Border Patrol agreed with the utility of such a model, but noted that the Border Patrol would need to purchase modeling software--a cost-prohibitive measure in the current budget environment. In the interim, Border Patrol is developing a formal workforce staffing model to identify staffing strategies for all Border Patrol duties. Border Patrol expected to implement this model for checkpoint staffing assignments in fiscal year 2014. However, in July 2014 Border Patrol reported that the Border Patrol Manpower Requirements Determination project is still being developed and will not be complete until next year. That process will inform staffing at checkpoints. As a result, Border Patrol revised its expected implementation date to September 2015. Once implemented, this action should address the intent of our recommendation.

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