High-Tech Border Check: E-Manifests

The United States is gradually phasing in a rule that trucking companies must report their cargo before they come across any of the 99 land border crossings — north or south.

It became mandatory in Arizona, Washington and most North Dakota crossings on Jan. 25.

Gregorio Servin drove his truck and trailer filled with vegetables about 14 hours from the fields of Culiacan, Mexico, to Nogales, Ariz. Then he stopped.

In Spanish, he said it would be about two hours to get through border security. That's a pretty typical wait behind a long line of other trucks entering the United States.

When he gets to the head of the line, he enters a customs lane. His big rig passes between two tall yellow pillars, which are radiation detectors. A camera captures his license plate as he drives into a shed.

A customs officer uses a black Labrador retriever to sniff for drugs. Then the driver pulls up to a booth and hands over his paperwork. That's where things slow down.

Louis Samenfink, head of Customs and Border Protection's cargo systems office, explains why:

"Right now, they're using light pens to wand bar codes, they're typing stuff into computer screens, and of course that all takes precious seconds," he says.

Those precious seconds add up when you're processing 1,200 trucks a day at Nogales. So CBP will require truckers or their bosses to send the manifests, which describe the truck's contents, ahead of time. It's called e-manifest. All cargo information will instantly show up on a computer screen.

"By having all this information in advance, and by having it all linked together, we're really gonna take the workload of those officers in that primary booth and almost eliminate it," Samenfink said.

David Heyman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the program is long overdue.

"In three more months it'll be introduced to California, New Mexico and parts of Texas," he said. "But we're just now coming on line in 2007, five years after it was required by law."

That's in part because carriers resisted and because the system took longer than expected to set up. The government is also asking companies to be part of what it calls the customs trade partnership against terrorism — a voluntary program in which carriers are trained to do some of their own security.

"That's the great unknown and we are relying largely on voluntary measures, that will now become mandatory, but that are not still fully audited," Heyman said.

Members of Congress have suggested inspecting every truck entering the country. But the government doesn't have the resources — and believes it would cripple commerce.

"If we suddenly took every arriving conveyance in the United States, 50 to 60,000 trucks a day, and put them all through these X-rays and had them pull up to a dock and unload their contents and do all of our inspections on it, I'll tell you it would probably bring the country to its knees pretty quickly," Samenfink said.

So to avoid driving up the cost of goods or dampening trade, agents will rely on e-manifest, radiation detectors and dogs.

They all have drawbacks. E-manifest has had connection problems. The radiation detectors can't tell the difference between weapons-grade plutonium and harmless medical products. Dogs are good at finding smuggled marijuana, but not smuggled people. So Brian Levin, with Customs and Border Protection in Arizona, says agents still rely on training and instincts, looking for an unusual commodity, an unfamiliar company name — or a nervous driver.

About 25 percent of the trucks get a full inspection. The rest are sent down the highway.

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