Border Security:

Partnership Agreements and Enhanced Oversight Could Strengthen Coordination of Efforts on Indian Reservations

GAO-13-352: Published: Apr 5, 2013. Publicly Released: Apr 5, 2013.

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Rebecca S. Gambler
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What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is coordinating in a variety of ways with tribes, such as through joint operations and shared facilities and Operation Stonegarden--a DHS grant program intended to enhance coordination among local, tribal, territorial, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in securing United States borders. However, the Border Patrol and tribes face coordination challenges. Officials from five tribes reported information-sharing challenges with the Border Patrol, such as not receiving notification of federal activity on their lands. Border Patrol officials reported challenges navigating tribal rules and decisions. Border Patrol and DHS have existing agreements with some, but not all, tribes to address specific border security issues, such as for the establishment of a law enforcement center on tribal lands. These agreements could serve as models for developing additional agreements between the Border Patrol and other tribes on their specific border security coordination challenges. Written government-to-government agreements could assist Border Patrol and tribal officials with enhancing their coordination, consistent with practices for sustaining effective coordination. DHS established an office to coordinate the components' tribal outreach efforts, which has taken actions such as monthly teleconferences with DHS tribal liaisons to discuss tribal issues and programs, but does not have a mechanism for monitoring and overseeing outreach efforts, consistent with internal control standards. Such monitoring should be performed continually; ingrained in the agency's operations; and clearly documented in directives, policies, or manuals to help ensure operations are carried out as intended. Implementing an oversight mechanism could help enhance DHS's department-wide awareness of and accountability for border security coordination efforts with the tribes while identifying those areas that work well and any needing improvement.

Why GAO Did This Study

Individuals seeking to enter the United States illegally may attempt to avoid screening procedures at ports of entry by crossing the border in areas between these ports, including Indian reservations, many of which have been vulnerable to illicit cross-border threat activity, such as drug smuggling, according to DHS. GAO was asked to review DHS's efforts to coordinate border security activities on Indian reservations. This report examines DHS's efforts to coordinate with tribal governments to address border security threats and vulnerabilities on Indian reservations. GAO interviewed DHS officials at headquarters and conducted interviews with eight tribes, selected based on factors such as proximity to the border, and the corresponding DHS field offices that have a role in border security for these Indian reservations. While GAO cannot generalize its results from these interviews to all Indian reservations and field offices along the border, they provide examples of border security coordination issues. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in December 2012. Information that DHS, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) deemed sensitive has been redacted.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DHS examine the benefits of government-to-government agreements with tribes and develop and implement a mechanism to monitor border security coordination efforts with tribes. DHS concurred with our recommendations.

For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In September 2013 and January 2014, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported that its Office of Intergovernmental Affairs will work with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in 2013-2014 to determine how more formalized government-to-government agreements between CBP and tribes could be further developed. CBP chartered a Tribal Strategy Working Group, which, as of March 2014, examined the current tribal agreements in place across the tribes included in our review. Using these agreements, CBP is determining standardized language recognizing each tribe's sovereignty and nation-to-nation status with the United States government that could be used in all agreements with the tribes to address issues, such as entry and access onto tribal lands, notification to the tribes of DHS and CBP activity on tribal lands, and sovereignty of the tribes. This standardized language will be included in the appendix of CBP's Tribal Consultation Policy which is, pending tribal consultation timeframes, estimated to be completed in October 2014. In addition, DHS and CBP plan to develop training materials for employees and dedicated tribal liaisons who engage in contractual negotiations with tribes, and CBP's field offices plan to assist with local training for its Border Community and Tribal Liaisons. Moreover, since January 2012, CBP has continued to enter into government-to-government agreements to address such issues as gate access and the Enhanced Tribal Identification Cards. These are positive steps that could help strengthen DHS and CBP coordination with tribes on border security issues. However, to fully address this recommendation and the coordination challenges described in the report, DHS and CBP should demonstrate that they have taken action to consider the benefits of additional government-to-government agreements that could help address, for example, the coordination challenges mentioned by the tribes that face border security threats.

    Recommendation: To enhance DHS-tribal coordination on border security on Indian reservations, including DHS's monitoring and oversight of these coordination efforts, the Secretary of Homeland Security should examine, or direct CBP to examine, as appropriate, the potential benefits of government-to-government written agreements with tribes facing border security threats.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In September 2013 and early 2014, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported that it took steps to develop and implement a mechanism to monitor DHS's department-wide border security coordination efforts with tribes. Specifically, in October 2013 DHS's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs met with an internal working group to discuss ways to monitor and improve collaboration with DHS component tribal liaisons. DHS hired a new Director of Tribal Affairs in January 2014 and, as of March 2014, DHS reported that it is in the process of selecting committee members and estimated that a permanent oversight committee will be fully formed by June 1, 2014. Additionally, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is examining the benefits of a performance-measuring pilot program that could serve as an internal mechanism for the implementation, coordination, and monitoring of tribal interactions. According to CBP, the goal of the performance measurement system is to provide, in part, DHS and CBP oversight of coordination with tribes. DHS also reported that it will work with its Office of General Counsel and component representatives to develop a DHS directive establishing uniform guidelines for all components regarding tribal consultation. In September 2013 the Assistant Secretary of Intergovernmental Affairs was given responsibility for serving as the principal point of contact for interaction with state, local, tribal, and territorial elected officials during the policymaking process. Specifically, authority delegated to the Assistant Secretary directs that person to coordinate departmental-tribal engagement, particularly the implementation of the DHS Tribal Consultation Policy throughout the Department, and to coordinate and oversee all intergovernmental outreach to state, local, tribal, and territorial governments and officials. By taking actions to establish a committee and a principal point of contact responsible for overseeing tribal interactions and by developing performance measures that would help monitor tribal interactions, DHS is moving forward with meeting the intent of this recommendation. DHS's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and CBP expect to have a committee active by June of 2014 and a performance measure pilot program implemented by the end of the fiscal year. To fully address this recommendation, DHS and CBP need to complete the efforts they have underway.

    Recommendation: To enhance DHS-tribal coordination on border security on Indian reservations, including DHS's monitoring and oversight of these coordination efforts, the Secretary of Homeland Security should develop and implement a mechanism to monitor DHS's department-wide border security coordination efforts with tribes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security


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