The U.S. law enforcement response to the terrorist attacks in September has had a profound effect on the nation's borders, where a heightened state of alert continues in effect. U.S. officials are determined to stop potential terrorists from entering the country.
As lines of vehicles and pedestrians lengthen, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents stop every person crossing over from Juarez. Also at the entry ports are U.S. Customs agents who question people and check the items they are bring across.
The borders with Canada and Mexico remain at Level One Alert, the highest level, and that means very few people are allowed to enter without at least answering some questions. U.S. Customs spokesman Roger Maier says asking simple questions of entrants is the most effective way of screening out those people who may have criminal or even terrorist plans.
"Our inspectors are trained. They see thousands of vehicles every week. They talk to thousands of people," he explains. "They can detect these sorts of anomalies in people's stories and the appearances of their vehicles, maybe some physical manifestations in the way that the person is acting. We do not like to discuss these things publicly for obvious reasons, but we are trained to detect these things and we do a generally good job in this area."
Customs agents are looking for contraband as well as weapons and explosives that could be carried over the border in a vehicle or on a person. An alert Customs agent stopped a would-be terrorist two years ago who tried to smuggle explosives into the United States from Canada. The only initial clue the agent had was the suspect's unusual reaction to simple questions. Immigration agents at the borders are also trained to look for people trying to enter with false documents.
INS El Paso spokeswoman Leticia Zamarrippa says the ethnic background or race of the person being questioned is not a factor in determining who is stopped for further questioning. She says the increased inspections apply to everyone equally.
"Level One Alert means intensified inspections all around. Everyone who is crossing at our points of entry is being inspected to the same degree," she explains. "Of course, there are people; there are vehicles; there are packages that inspectors are going to take more of a special interest in. But everyone is being looked at just the same."
Ms. Zamarrippa says many El Paso-based agents gave up planned vacations in order to increase the force on the border necessary to handle the extra inspection load.
New technology is also helping inspectors at the border. Special cameras near the entry gates read the license plates on every vehicle. A computer then searches for information on the vehicle and its owner. Roger Maier says Customs agents are hoping to have more such technological assistance in near future.
"Certainly our agency is always looking for various forms of technology to allow the inspectors to better perform their job," says Mr. Maier. "Over the years the number of vehicles and the number of people crossing the border has increased dramatically while our work force has remained somewhat static, so we have employed a lot of technology already, mostly to examine vehicles, containers and that type of thing."
U.S. officials admit they cannot stop every person trying to enter the country illegally, nor can they stop all the shipments of narcotics and other dangerous contraband. Each year, there are 500 million entries at U.S. border entry points. Checking each of those persons to prevent a terrorist from entering U.S. territory without damaging vital crossborder commerce is a daunting challenge. But U.S. Immigration and Customs officials are hoping an increase in personnel and in technological devices will help them tighten their control on the border.