Observations on Implementing the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative

GAO-08-274R: Published: Dec 20, 2007. Publicly Released: Jan 22, 2008.

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Securing the nation's borders has taken on added importance since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For years, millions of citizens of the United States, Canada, and Bermuda could enter the United States from certain parts of the Western Hemisphere using a wide variety of documents, including a driver's license issued by a state motor vehicle administration or a birth certificate, or in some cases for U.S. and Canadian citizens, without showing any documents. In the heightened national security environment following September 11, we have previously reported that documents like driver's licenses and birth certificates can easily be obtained, altered, or counterfeited and used by terrorists to travel into and out of the country. To help provide better assurance that border officials have the tools and resources to establish that people are who they say they are, as called for in the 9/11 Commission report, section 7209 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, as amended, requires the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to develop and implement a plan that requires a passport or other document or combination of documents that the Secretary of Homeland Security deems sufficient to show identity and citizenship for U.S. citizens and citizens of Bermuda, Canada, and Mexico when entering the United States from certain countries in North, Central, or South America. The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) and the Department of State's (State) effort to specify acceptable documents and implement document requirements at 326 air, land, and sea ports of entry is called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). DHS is required by law to implement WHTI document requirements at the land and sea ports of entry on the earlier of two dates: June 1, 2009, or 3 months after DHS and State certify that certain implementation requirements have been met. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a component within DHS, is the lead agency in charge of inspecting travelers seeking to enter the United States at air, land, and sea ports of entry. CBP has created a WHTI program office within CBP's Office of Field Operations to manage efforts to propose acceptable documents, implement document requirements, and oversee technological upgrades. In fiscal year 2008, DHS requested about $252 million for WHTI implementation, including approximately $166 million for related technological upgrades--to develop new software and to deploy that software and new hardware at 13 of the highest-volume U.S. land ports of entry. According to DHS, implementation of the WHTI document requirements and related technological upgrades will support its strategic goal of facilitating legitimate trade and travel while enforcing all U.S. trade, immigration, drug, consumer protection, intellectual property, and agricultural laws and regulations at the borders. According to DHS, the technological upgrades are designed to improve customer service by avoiding a more time-intensive and intrusive inspection process that would result from meeting WHTI document requirements without this technology. In May 2006, we reported our observations on steps taken and challenges faced by DHS and State in implementing WHTI in five main areas: (1) proceeding through the rulemaking process, (2) making a decision about what documents individuals will need when they enter the United States, (3) carrying out a cost-benefit study, (4) resolving technical and programmatic issues, and (5) managing implementation of the program. This report provides updated information in those five areas.

Since May 2006, DHS and State have taken important actions toward implementing WHTI document requirements. We reported in May 2006 that DHS and State had not made decisions about what documents would be acceptable, had not begun the rule-making process to finalize those decisions, and were in the early stages of studying costs and benefits. In addition, DHS and State needed to choose a technology to use with the new passport card--which State is developing specifically for WHTI. DHS also faced an array of implementation challenges, including training staff and informing the public. Since our 2006 work, DHS and State have taken the following actions in the five main areas: Proceeding through the Rule-Making Process--(1) DHS and State finalized the rulemaking process for document requirements at air ports of entry. The agencies also published a notice of proposed rule making for document requirements at land and sea ports of entry and anticipate finalizing the requirements in late fall 2007; (2)Deciding on Acceptable Documents--By publishing a final rule for document requirements at air ports of entry, DHS and State have established acceptable documents for air travelers. The notice of proposed rule making for land and sea proposes acceptable documents. DHS plans to implement document requirements at land and sea ports of entry as early as summer 2008. Performing a Cost-Benefit Study--(3) DHS has performed a cost-benefit study as required by the rule-making process. Data limitations prevented DHS from quantifying the precise effect that WHTI will have on wait times--a substantial source of uncertainty in its analysis. DHS plans to do baseline studies at selected ports before WHTI implementation so that it can compare the effects of WHTI document requirements on wait times after the requirements are implemented; (4) Resolving Technical and Programmatic Issues. DHS and State have selected technology to be used with the passport card. To support the card and other documents that use the same technology, DHS is planning technological upgrades at land ports of entry. These upgrades are intended to help reduce traveler wait times and more effectively verify identity and citizenship. DHS has outlined a general strategy for the upgrades at the 39 highest volume land ports, beginning in January 2008 and continuing over roughly the next 2 years; and (5} Managing Implementation. DHS has developed general strategies for implementing WHTI--including staffing and training. According to DHS officials, they also plan to work with a contractor on a public relations campaign to communicate clear and timely information about document requirements. In addition, State has approved contracting with a public relations firm to assist with educating the public, particularly border resident communities about the new passport card and the requirements of WHTI in general. As DHS moves toward calendar year 2008, it faces challenges deploying technology and staffing and training officers to use it. In the absence of a fiscal year 2008 appropriation, funding for the contract has been uncertain. According to DHS officials, they are exploring options for funding a contract award, using available funds, if an appropriation is not immediately forthcoming. However, DHS has not yet determined when and to what extent funds will be available. As of December 2007, lacking certainty about how it will fund the contract award and when it will publish the final rule, DHS could not provide a specific date by which it will select a contractor and begin devising specific milestones and deadlines for the testing and deployment of new hardware.

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