Secretary of Homeland Security talks customs at MIA

Janet Napolitano stops at Miami International Airport, Port Everglades

By Christina Vazquez - Reporter

MIAMI - Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano wants to shorten wait times for international passengers arriving at Miami International Airport.

Napolitano toured Port Everglades and Miami International Airport with U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz on Wednesday.

Elected officials told Napolitano not having enough customs officers in place to process incoming international visitors has created a backlog that hurts tourism and impacts business.

Miami-Dade County commissioners and Florida Gov. Rick Scott have issued their complaints about the problem.

"(I) got the governor's letter," said Napolitano. "The situation is most severe in the airports we have that have grown the most and grown the most in international arrivals, obviously, and Miami would be tops amongst those lists."

Napolitano said the department expanded the Global Entry Program, which expedites clearance at ports of entry for pre-screened passengers. She also mentioned a plan that would split the cost of adding staff between airlines and county taxpayer money, although that's even further off since it involves a statutory change.

Last summer, airport officials showed off Miami International Airport's new $180 million customs facility. It has 72 inspection stations to accommodate MIA's growing number of international visitors.

But airport officials said there aren't enough federal customs officers to staff them, adding they need more customs officers in those expanded lanes to bring wait times down.

On Wednesday, Miami-Dade County commissioners discussed a resolution which urges "the United States Congress to increase funding for Customs and Border Protection staffing at Miami International Airport."

None of these gripes, however, are new. Customs staffing problems at America's busiest airports can be described as chronic, documented as far back as 2005 in a U.S. Government Accountability Office report. Back then, the report recommended that international passenger wait times be included as a performance measure for customs officers so that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) can better assess staff levels and how best to address passenger volume.

Local 10's Christina Vazquez asked CBP spokeswoman Jenny Burke if that had been implemented but has yet to hear back.

Meantime, Napolitano said the looming sequester could make this already challenging situation even worse in the form of mandatory furloughs and delays on implementing some of her staffing ideas.

Spending cuts would also impact TSA staffing and Napolitano warned if nothing is done to stop the implementation of the sequester on March 1, fliers should plan on getting to the airport as much as an hour earlier than normal.

Copyright 2013 by All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.