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U.S. to Curb Checks at Customs, Open Canadian Border : Travel: Radical proposal is designed to streamline airport operations. Critics say it would jeopardize safety, drug enforcement. Pilot project begins this week in Miami.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite rising concerns about the importation of drugs and terrorism, millions of travelers would be allowed to enter the United States through airports and the Canadian border without undergoing immigration or customs inspections under a radical proposal by federal agencies.

Foreign visitors would no longer be required to reveal the U.S. address where they intend to stay, according to a final draft obtained by The Times. And passengers would not be required to declare what they are bringing into the country.

Under the proposal, the U.S. border with Canada eventually would become an open border, with no inspections--and Canadians and U.S. citizens would be allowed to pass through airports with little or no checking.

The plan is designed to “make radical improvements to the [inspection] process at airports,” sparing inconvenience to visitors and airlines who have long complained about cumbersome inspections at major airports, according to the draft.

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The proposal was completed with the assistance of the National Performance Review, Vice President Al Gore’s task force on reinventing government. Recommendations affecting airport inspections are scheduled to be implemented Thursday in a pilot program at Miami International Airport.

Officials promised to drop any parts of the plan that hinder enforcement of immigration, drug and customs laws.

Bob Stone, project director of Gore’s task force, compared the proposal to a ritzy department store’s strategy to prevent shoplifting.

“The genius of what they’re doing is moving law enforcement targeting away from honest citizens and going after people who want to steal,” Stone said. “The law enforcement people [will be] spending more time enforcing laws than they are hassling legitimate business people.”

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A final draft was issued Aug. 8, after a 90-day study by representatives of Gore’s staff and high-ranking officials from the U.S. Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Department of Agriculture and State Department.

Some of the recommendations call for “near-term” improvements such as:

* Ending the requirement that foreign air travelers provide U.S. addresses where they intend to stay, which critics said will make it more difficult to track down visitors who overstay their visas.

* Making voluntary the forms on which passengers now must declare what they are bringing into the United States, such as produce, goods worth more than $400 and currency over $10,000.

* Diverting arriving passengers on international flights from “low-risk” countries to domestic gates, where passengers and baggage would not be inspected.

The plan also called for eventually eliminating the immigration form that passengers fill out before arriving in this country and opening the U.S.-Canada border, with no inspections for the more than 100 million people who pass through it each year.

John McGowan, customs division director for passenger operations in Washington, said that opening the U.S.-Canada border would require “the approval of both governments at the highest level.” He called the proposal “blue-sky thinking” and “not as frightening as some people might think.”

Officials said the success of the pilot program and the necessary changes in technology will determine how long it takes to put in place “long-term improvements,” such as opening the Canadian border.

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The draft proposal warned that “there are some risks associated with [near-term] improvement measures.” It noted that the Customs Service’s own statistics showed that of the 57 million foreign visitors who arrived at U.S. airports last year, the names of less than half of them could be checked against the agency’s computerized list of known or suspected terrorists, drug dealers and other undesirables.

But the proposal called for expanding and strengthening the computerized Advance Passenger Information System. One weakness is that it relies on the voluntary cooperation of airlines, whose employees input the passenger names--and some foreign carriers do not have the computer capability to forward names to the customs agency.

Andrea Sickler, assistant chief inspector at INS headquarters in Washington, said the proposal is “the first step in the right direction to enhance facilitation and enforcement at U.S. airports.”

When asked to explain the enforcement benefit derived from not requiring foreign visitors to give the INS a U.S. address where they can be located, Sickler said: “I really don’t know what to say.”

“Our plan is not designed to decrease enforcement,” she added. “We want to increase the quantity and quality of data [on arriving passengers].”

But not everyone welcomed the recommendations.

In a letter to its Miami chapter Friday, the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents customs inspectors, came out in opposition to the plan. The union said it “does not want to jeopardize enforcement for the sake of expediting passenger processing.”

In an Aug. 25 letter to Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) expressed concern about the effect the plan would have on the nation’s fight against drugs, terrorism and illegal immigration.

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“I am alarmed at the potentially devastating impact this program could have on those efforts,” Feinstein said. “What is to stop a potential terrorist from simply flying into the United States from a country designated as low risk and thereby avoiding customs altogether?”

In a working paper, one unidentified member of the group that drafted the proposal said the plan’s recommendations boil down to “facilitation versus safety and security.”

“Why should we give up the present system of speaking to and examining a very high percentage of passengers for the sake of facilitation? Does the World Trade Center [bombing], Medfly or illegal aliens mean anything? Or does the quick processing of passengers take priority over national safety and security?”

The working paper by 12 members from customs, the INS and the agriculture and state departments warned that some proposals could prevent U.S. authorities from knowing “who actually entered the United States and in what status.”

Risks to “U.S. security from pest disease outbreaks, terrorists and mala fide entrants [those acting with ill intent] may be increased,” said the working paper, which also warned that some recommendations “affect many INS regulations and laws.”

Customs officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the plan is another example of a customs “facilitation” policy that calls for expedited handling of goods and visitors at the ports of entry and airports--which inspectors allege has caused a dramatic drop in cocaine seizures at commercial land ports in the Southwest.

The policy is best exemplified by the agency’s Line Release program at the Southwest border, which allows millions of trucks to enter the United States from Mexico each year without inspection.

U.S. officials said the recommended changes in passenger processing were necessitated by the sharp increase of foreign visitors entering the country--about 467 million people arrived at airports and entered through land ports on the northern and southern borders in 1994.

But Stone said political considerations also influenced the changes. The growing number of travelers at airports such as Miami International taxed the patience of passengers and inspectors alike, he said.

Sources familiar with the federal study said it was also prompted in part by complaints from the airlines. Industry officials said the lengthy inspections often caused arriving passengers to miss connecting flights, sometimes forcing airlines to pay for overnight hotel stays or tickets on other carriers.

Eliminating or minimizing inspections will lead to “fewer misconnected flights,” according to the working paper. And, the proposal said, the changes will “result in increased favorable public perception and enhance relations with the airline industry.”

J. William Noonan, managing director of Air Transport Assn., said airlines support the recommendation for fewer inspections. Lengthy inspections “cost us money,” Noonan said. “The connecting time between international arrivals and domestic departures is critically important to the well-being of the industry.

“Our desire is that they should be able to maintain their enforcement but quicken the inspection process,” he said.

Under the proposal, roving teams of inspectors will circulate among arriving passengers to conduct impromptu inspections of anyone who appears suspicious. But international travelers who are diverted to domestic gates, according to the proposal, will not see uniformed inspectors.

The working paper by the airport group said that at the very least the sight of a uniformed figure of authority could serve as a deterrent to law violators. “We need to demonstrate to the public that we are there and active in preventing entry of harmful persons/items,” said the paper.

But U.S. officials said that 99% of airport inspections do not lead to seizures or arrests. Stone and customs authorities pointed to an experimental program at Miami International last summer that they say proved that fewer inspections can facilitate passenger processing without harming enforcement if done scientifically.

D. Lynn Gordon, customs district director in Miami, said the study of 15,000 passengers showed that only 1% were violators.

“We’re a lot more sophisticated here in our enforcement and it’s paid off,” she said. “Enforcement has not suffered the slightest.”


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