Scanners that detect fentanyl remain unused because Congress has not provided funding to install them

By | March 5, 2024

Customs and Border Protection has spent millions on state-of-the-art high-tech scanners to detect fentanyl crossing the U.S. southern border, but many scanners lie unused in warehouses because Congress has not appropriated money to install them, Acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller told NBC News.

Miller gave NBC News a tour of a port of entry in Nogales, Arizona, where half of all fentanyl seized at the border is stopped en route to the U.S. from Mexico.

Agents in Nogales have found fentanyl hidden in crates of Coca-Cola, where bottles have been painted black to look like liquid, cut in half and filled with fentanyl pills; they seized millions in fentanyl pills stuffed in the bathroom water tank of a commercial bus; they have even found fentanyl in cars with young children sitting in car seats in the back. More than 95% of the fentanyl seized at the border is actually brought into the US in personal vehicles, according to Miller.

The new technology, known as Non-Intrusive Inspection, or NII, will allow CBP to x-ray a percentage of cars and trucks as they pass through the massive U-shaped screening machines, which look something like car washes. Drivers do not need to get out of their vehicles to be screened, meaning traffic can continue to flow through border checkpoints with fewer interruptions.

But some of the equipment purchased has not yet been put into use because Congress has not appropriated the necessary funding to install it. The money to install the screeners was included in the additional funding request that Republicans blocked.

“We do have technology in the warehouse that has been tested. But we need about $300 million [to] actually put the technology in the ground,” Miller said. “It’s extremely frustrating.”

It is unknown exactly how much equipment is stored and where. The contracts to buy the machines amounted to tens of millions.

border drug detection vehicle car scanner (NBC News)

border drug detection vehicle car scanner (NBC News)

A CBP official speaking on background said the Biden administration’s “supplemental funding request would provide funding for civil works projects so that NII systems purchased with last year’s funds could be installed .”

At the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales, where the new machines are installed, Miller encountered officers looking at scans of commercial trucks as they drove through the machines. But at the vast majority of vehicular border crossings in Nogales and elsewhere, agents still rely on their intuition to tell them when something seems wrong.

Artificial intelligence would likely make fentanyl scanning more efficient, and CBP would like to make more use of it, Miller said.

With AI, officers would be alerted to truck anomalies or changes since their last traffic stops in Mexico, such as different license plates, weight changes or different drivers.

Former acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan was at the helm of CBP in 2018 and 2019, just as fentanyl trafficking began to increase.

“The vast majority of trade that crosses the border is legal. More than 98% have no violations of US law. So they are really looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack,” says McAleenan. “So what AI can do is tell them whether this image that the officer is going to review meets what’s supposed to be in that container.”

McAleenan now heads Pangiam, a company based just outside Washington, DC, that recently received $21.5 million from CBP to build new technology that can use AI to detect anomalies in traffic crossing the border.

When asked why he didn’t take the lead in using the technology while at DHS, McAleenan said it takes many years to develop.

“We saw the increase coming. The efforts we made in 2018 reduced the number of overdoses in 2019,” said McAleenan. But knowing what he now knows about fentanyl, “I would have really emphasized that we stay on top of this and stay ahead of it.”

With increased use of AI, officers would still be responsible for making the final decisions to stop and search vehicles, but the AI ​​could improve the speed and number of vehicles searched. Currently, 20% of commercial vehicles are scanned and less than 5% of personal vehicles are scanned, according to Miller. He wants the CBP to be able to scan 40% of passenger cars and 70% of commercial vehicles by the end of 2025.

So why not scan 100% of all vehicles if it saves a human life?

Miller said that with 1 million people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border every day, scanning every vehicle would “shut down legitimate commerce and travel.”

However, parents who have lost children are calling on the CBP to do more.

“I think the border should be closed. We are a superhighway,” said Theresa Guerrero of Tucson, Arizona, who lost her 31-year-old son Jacob in 2020 after taking cocaine he didn’t know was laced with fentanyl.

Guerrero is working to get photos of Jacob and two other young Arizonans who recently died from fentanyl on a billboard that motorists would pass as they drive from the border to Tucson.

“It makes me sad when I see a new name” of someone who has passed away, “especially in my home state,” she said. “It’s just pointless.”

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