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III. An Overview of the Commercial Cargo, Drug Interdiction and Vehicle Safety Inspection Functions

The commercial regulation and law enforcement functions at the ports of entry involve inspection of commercial cargo and commercial vehicles and drivers for compliance with federal and state laws. The federal and state agencies at the ports of entry have three primary functions: commercial cargo processing, drug interdiction, and commercial vehicle and driver safety.

Commercial Cargo Processing Function

The U.S. Customs Service has large automated systems to support its commercial, enforcement, administration, and other functions. The Automated Commercial System (ACS) is an automated information system that tracks, controls and processes all goods imported into the United States. ACS, which became operational in 1984, contains several processing modules, six of which are described below.[51]

Automated Broker Interface (ABI)

The ABI provides a communications link for the transmission of entry data and entry summary data on imported merchandise among ABI users—brokers, importers, carriers, port authorities and computer service centers. ABI expedites primary inspection clearance by providing timely entry and import information.

Automated Manifest System (AMS)

The Automated Manifest System is both an imported merchandise inventory control and a cargo release notification system. AMS is a means to expedite the flow of cargo and an electronic release notification system reducing paperwork for carriers and Customs.

Cargo Selectivity System

The cargo selectivity system is an enforcement tool that specifies the type of examination (intensive or general) to be conducted for imported merchandise.

Collections System

The collections system is a billing and accounting system for ACS. The optional clearinghouse feature (ACH) of ACS accepts electronic funds payment capability from the exporters and importers.

Entry Summary Selectivity System

The entry summary selectivity system provides an automated review of entry summary data to determine whether a commodity specialist team or routine review is needed.

Quota System

The quota system controls quota levels of imported merchandise established by Presidential Proclamations, Executive Orders, or other legislation.

Additional processes that work in support of the ACS System are:

National In-Bond System
The National In-Bond System provides a means of transporting merchandise from one port to another in the United States.

Line Release System
The line release system tracks and releases highly repetitive shipments at land border locations. Customs scans a bar code, verifies that the bar code matches the invoice data, and releases the cargo. The cargo release data is transmitted to ACS, which provides ABI participants with release information.

Statement Processing
Statement processing allows ABI filers to pay multiple ABI entry summaries with one check or payment transaction. Statement processing reduces the processing time for collection and acceptance of an entry summary.

Automated Clearinghouse (ACH)
ACH is an electronic payment option that allows ABI filers to pay customs fees, duties, and taxes with one electronic transaction. The accuracy and speed of ACH results in a higher volume of completed transactions for the importers and Customs, saving time and money.

Border Release Advance Screening and Selectivity (BRASS)
BRASS Line Release tracks and releases highly repetitive shipments at land border locations. BRASS is a Y2K compliant update of the old Line Release program.

The ACS components essential to tracking, controlling and processing all goods imported into the U.S. are the Automated Broker Interface (ABI), Automated Manifest System (AMS), the Cargo Selectivity System, Line Release System, Automated Clearinghouse, and the Border Release Advance Screening and Selectivity (BRASS).

Cargo Processing in Action

Tracking a simple shipment of watermelons from the Mexican state of Tabasco to Hidalgo, Texas illustrates how the Customs processing programs operate:

  • Watermelons are an agricultural item classified as a high-volume, low-pest risk commodity and therefore are eligible for expedited cargo release.[52]
  • The U.S. customs broker submits through the ABI (communications link between customs brokers and Customs), a cargo manifest at least ten days but not less than four hours prior to its goods arriving at the border port, describing the cargo that will be crossing (pre-file and border cargo release programs).
  • A hard copy of the manifest should be at the border port no less than four hours before crossing. With the pre-file program, Customs knows the cargo being shipped, where it originated, and the specific carrier transporting the cargo through the port.
  • Upon arrival of the watermelon load at the border, Customs scans a bar code on the manifest, verifies the invoice, receives clearance from other federal agencies.
  • In this case, the Food and Drug Administration reviews and clears the watermelons for release. But even though the item is a low-risk commodity, it is still inspected to determine if it was shipped in a contaminated carrier. If the carrier is contaminated by a quarantined product (wheat seed, rice seed, manure, etc.) the carrier is not allowed to enter the U.S. The watermelons may be transferred onto a clean carrier in Mexico.
  • An additional benefit of the pre-file process is that, with advanced notice, Customs can determine which cargo may need a more intensive inspection (cargo selectivity).
  • If no additional inspections are required, Customs releases the watermelons (line release system).

Drug Interdiction Function

The U.S. Customs Service’s passenger, cargo and vehicle inspection functions include detecting, interdicting and investigating illegally entering narcotics, drugs and contraband and enforcing of U.S. laws governing international movement of goods. These functions are carried out directly by Customs and INS in the primary and secondary inspection phases. The Customs Service uses dogs, x-ray machines, wands, and scanners and the inspectors judgement to determine if more intensive inspections are necessary.

Texas National Guardsmen operate the fixed and mobile x-ray machines in the commercial secondary inspection areas of the ports of entry. Fixed site truck x-ray systems are operational at the Veterans International Bridge at Los Tomates, Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge, the Laredo World Trade Bridge, the Laredo-Colombia Solidarity Bridge, the Ysleta-Zaragoza Bridge and the Bridge of the Americas in El Paso.

Narcotics interdiction is an important component of Customs’ functions at the border. A General Accounting Office report noted that at the seven busiest ports of entry along the Southwest Border, 14 percent to 47 percent of commercial vehicles underwent a detailed inspection for narcotics.[53]


The preceding is a brief overview of automated processes and high technology equipment used by the U.S. Customs Services to accomplish its cargo compliance and drug interdiction missions. Not every shipper and cargo carrier is equipped to benefit from the automated systems due to lack of technology or because the U.S. Customs district is not using that system.

Furthermore, despite the availability of automated systems to preprocess international shipments, a U.S. Customs, or INS inspector is still involved in the primary inspection phase of every border crossing. All persons, commercial cargo, carriers, and drivers must be cleared by a U.S. Customs or INS inspector before they can proceed into the United States.

Staffing data is not available on the number of inspections conducted by U.S. Customs and INS inspectors on a port-by-port basis. However, INS inspectors in the El Paso, Harlingen, and San Antonio Districts, comprising 28 ports of entry, conducted a combined total of 191 million inspections during 1999, almost 275,600 inspections per authorized position. In contrast, INS inspectors in the Phoenix and San Diego Districts, which includes 13 ports of entry, conducted a combined total of 133 million inspections during the same period, almost 167,000 inspections per authorized position.[54]

U.S. Customs Services staffing levels in the West Texas and South Texas increased by 25 percent between fiscal 1996 and fiscal 2000, from 960 in 1996 to almost 1,200 inspectors in 2000 (Exhibit 5, U.S. Customs Service, Canine Enforcement Officers and Inspectors). Canine enforcement officers almost doubled during the same period, increasing from 132 in 1996 to 216 in 2000.[55]

Exhibit 5
U.S. Customs Service Canine Enforcement Officers (CEOs) and Inspectors

-- South Texas* -- -- West Texas** -- -- National --
Fiscal Year CEOs Inspectors CEOs Inspectors Region Total CEOs Inspectors Total Texas Region % of Total
1996 91 597 41 361 1,090 458 7,281 7,739 14.1%
1997 136 730 68 415 1,349 599 7,705 8,304 16.2%
1998 145 743 69 412 1,369 824 7,874 8,698 15.7%
1999 157 778 73 387 1,395 644 7,812 8,456 16.5%
2000 145 740 71 452 1,408 613 7,584 8,197 17.2%
1996-2000 Number Change 54 143 30 91 318 155 303 458
1996-2000 % Change 59.3% 24.0% 73.2% 25.2% 29.2% 33.8% 4.2% 5.9%

* South Texas includes Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Hidalgo/Pharr, Laredo/Colombia, Progreso, San Antonio, Roma, and Rio Grande City.
** West Texas includes El Paso, Presidio and New Mexico ports of entry.
Source: U.S. Customs Service, Office of Field Operations.

Commercial Vehicle Inspection Function

State agency activities affecting commercial traffic are directed at ensuring compliance with laws and standards regarding drugs, transportation of hazardous waste, and commercial vehicle and driver safety. The key state inspection agency at the international bridges is the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).

Because the state of Texas has adopted the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, all commercial vehicles entering the U.S. from Mexico must comply with these regulations. USDOT inspectors and DPS troopers conduct the vehicle and driver inspections. The DPS presence is needed because INS and Customs do not have authority to inspect trucks for vehicle and safety violations. Customs and INS inspect persons and luggage on commercial buses, but not for driver and vehicle safety.[56]

DPS troopers are not stationed at the international bridges full-time, but rather inspect trucks as other duties permit. Generally, DPS works in the secondary inspection areas. USDOT inspectors, who work eight-hour shifts, assist DPS troopers and are assigned to the secondary inspection areas. Local police departments do not have officers assigned to the international bridge. Local police officers conduct roadside inspections.

Types of Inspections

DPS troopers perform level 1 and level 2 inspections in the secondary inspection areas to enforce the motor carrier safety regulations. A level 1 inspection includes each of the items specified under the North American Standard Inspection Procedure. The inspection includes checking the driver’s requirements, including driver license, medical certificate, medical waiver, off-duty status record, driver’s vehicle inspection report, shipping papers, alcohol, drugs, presence of hazardous materials, steering mechanism, brake system, electrical system, wheels, tires, rims, suspension, fuel system, brakes and suspension system.[57]

A level 1 inspection requires two persons. DPS officers conduct level 1 inspections at the international border crossings and at roadsides away from the international bridges. A level 2 inspection is a “walk-around” driver and vehicle inspection—a visual inspection of all items that do not require inspecting underneath the vehicle. A level 2 inspection requires only one DPS officer.[58] If no critical defect is found during the inspection, a Commercial Vehicle Safety Allowance (CVSA) sticker is affixed to the window of the vehicle and the sticker is good for 90 days. If a critical defect is found, the driver is required to repair the defect before he can leave the secondary inspection area.

DPS troopers and USDOT inspectors are assigned to the busiest border crossings which are the Veterans Memorial International Bridge, the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge, the World Trade Bridge in Laredo, and the Bridge of the Americas and the Zaragoza International bridge in El Paso.[59] DPS does not have the manpower resources to assign troopers to all the bridges.

The potential workload is significant: In January 2000, a combined 162,000 northbound commercial vehicles crossed the four busiest bridges in South Texas—the Juárez-Lincoln Bridge in Laredo, the Laredo Colombia Bridge, the Pharr-Reynosa Bridge and the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Brownsville. Yet, DPS troopers conducted 204 inspections (130 Level I and 74 Level II). Twenty-eight U.S. and 42 Mexican vehicles were taken out of service, and citations were issued for 162 total violations ranging from 94 for equipment infractions to five for registration. Also, more than 1,300 warnings were issued.[60]

ITS/CVO Technology

The State of Texas historically has not invested extensively in Intelligent Transportation System/Commercial Vehicle Operations (ITS/CVO) technology (Exhibit 6.) Texas’ motor carrier and driver safety enforcement function relies heavily on roadside inspections and random spot checks.

Exhibit 6
ITS/CVO Technologies

Technology Function Uses
Weigh-in-motion(WIM) Transmit weight of trucks to enforcement officials while the vehicle is traveling Information may be used for customs, tolls and safety purposes.
Automatic Vehicle Identification Transponders that serve as electronic license plates to identify vehicles at weigh stations or border crossings.
Automatic Vehicle Classification (AVC) A system that identifies the number of axles, axle spacing, etc.

Source: National Governors Association.

There is limited use of automation to process commercial and non-commercial traffic at Texas’ international bridges. The Good Neighbor Bridge in El Paso has a dedicated commuter lane (DCL)—one of three, including two at San Isidro and Otay Mesa in San Diego, California, operating along the U.S.-Mexico border. The $2.2 million DCL was financed by a foundation of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce. The El Paso DCL program has 3,800 members which pay fees of almost $400 annually to use the express lane.[61] A DCL planned for the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge is on hold until further study is completed.[62]

There is sufficient ITS technology available to allow a pre-cleared truck to proceed through the border station without stopping. Unless a commercial truck needs to be inspected it should not need to stop at the border, nor as it proceeds to its final destination in the U.S. ITS/CVO technology helps states administer safety assurance of drivers (drivers license, duty logs, medical certificates); inspection of vehicles; processing of applications for registrations, permits and fuel taxes; and commercial vehicle clearance of credentials and weighing at weigh stations, and international crossings.[63]