High-Tech Border Check: E-Manifests Up to 1,500 trucks a day enter the U.S. at Nogales, Ariz. Border authorities are trying to balance security with commerce by installing new technology that includes a new "e-manifest" system tracking trucks' contents.
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High-Tech Border Check: E-Manifests

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High-Tech Border Check: E-Manifests

High-Tech Border Check: E-Manifests

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American border officials are looking for the real security threats at the same time that they screened tens of thousands of trucks carrying legitimate goods. This task is so difficult that the government must rely on trucking companies to monitor what they themselves carry. The latest tool requiring truckers to report their cargo before they even get to the border.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS: Gregorio Servin drove his truck and trailer filled with vegetables about 14 hours from the field of Culiacan, Mexico to Nogales, Arizona. Then he stopped.

Mr. GREGORIO SERVIN (Truck Driver): (Spanish spoken)

Unknown Man: Two hours.

ROBBINS: That's a pretty typical wait behind a long line of other trucks entering the U.S. His big rig passes between two tall yellow pillars - radiation portal detectors - then a camera captures his license plate as he drives into a shed. A customs officer uses a black Labrador to sniff for drugs, and the driver pulls up to a booth and hands over his paperwork - where things slow down.

Mr. LOUIS SAMENFINK (Customs and Border Protection Cargo Systems): 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.

ROBBINS: Louis Samenfink heads the Customs and Border Protection cargo systems office in Washington. Those precious seconds add up when you're processing 1,200 trucks a day just here in Nogales. So CBP wants carriers to submit their manifest, their truck content, ahead of time electronically. It's called e-Manifest.

Mr. SAMENFINK: By having all this information in advance and by having it all linked together, we're really going to take the workload of our officers in that primary booth and almost eliminate it.

ROBBINS: All cargo information will instantly show up in a computer screen. That's a good thing, says David Hamon of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But it was mandated by Congress in 2002 and it's only now being gradually implemented in Arizona, Washington State and part of North Dakota.

Mr. DAVID HAMON (Center for Strategic and International Studies): In three more months it'll be introduced to California, New Mexico and Texas as well. But we're just not coming online in 2007, five years after it was required by law.

ROBBINS: That's in part because carriers resisted and 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.

David Hamon says it means companies are scrutinizing themselves.

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

ROBBINS: Members of Congress have suggested inspecting every truck entering the U.S., but the government doesn't have the resources. And the CBP's Louis Samenfink says it doesn't want to check everything.

Mr. SAMENFINK: If we suddenly took every arriving conveyance in the United States, 50 to 60 thousand trucks a day and dray them all through these X-rays and I tell you I think it would probably bring the country to its knees pretty quickly.

ROBBINS: So to avoid driving up the cost of goods or stopping trade all together, agents will rely on technology like e-Manifest. But nothing's perfect. E-Manifest has had connection problems. Those radiation portal detectors can't tell the difference between weapons-grade plutonium and harmless medical products. Dogs are good at smelling smuggled marijuana but not smuggled people.

So Brian Levin(ph) with Customs and Border Protection in Arizona says agents still rely on training and instincts.

Mr. BRIAN LEVIN (Customs and Border Protection): Maybe somebody that we haven't seen before, a new importer, a shipment, a commodity that we haven't seen come through here before.

ROBBINS: Or a suspicious glance, a sweaty brow. About one-quarter of the trucks and drivers here get a full inspection. The rest, like Gregorio Servin are sent down the highway with a load of cucumbers, and everyone hopes nothing else.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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