Staff cuts, long lines at borders for the holidays
By Meg Olson
at local borders remains high, but staff inspecting traffic
as it enters the United States has dwindled by 15 percent
at least for now. Twenty-one border patrol agents
transferred from the southern border to help alleviate border
congestion in Whatcom County went home December 21 and the
Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has no intention
of bringing them back. While Congress has given the green
light for more inspectors, they arent here yet, and
National Guard troops have yet to be deployed.
We want the Border Patrol to do the Border Patrols job, said INS regional representative Virginia Kice, explaining the agencys decision to move the agents south. Kice said border patrol agents in inspection booths was a temporary measure to cut back on overtime being worked by INS inspectors, many of whom were reaching the cap on overtime set by Congress. Recent congressional action allowed the INS to lift the overtime cap. We have more flexibility to use overtime, Kice said. Ten additional INS inspectors remain at local borders, seven from around the western region and three from within the Seattle district.
The border patrol agents in inspection booths also sped up crossings in the face of the highest level of security, put in place after the September 11 attacks. Seattle district assistant director of operations Ron Hays said the two 30-day details the agents have worked saw at least one extra lane open at all Whatcom County border crossings. The Peace Arch and Pacific Highway crossings had up to five lanes open during peak times, which Hays said is now being reduced to two or three. The wait times prior to their departure were averaging 30 to 60 minutes, Hays said. As weve seen, since then they were substantially longer. Theyve run as high as 175 minutes. The worst was at Christmas.
Hays monitors wait times daily, but said he only receives volume data monthly, so could not comment on whether the long lines over the holidays had discouraged cross-border travel. However, with fewer lanes open this week, wait times have still dropped to levels similar to early December, which would indicate less people crossing the border. Whether thats because it was bad over the holiday, or people have already taken their trips, I dont know, he said.
Its robbing Peter to pay Paul, said U.S. Representative Rick Larsen of the INS decision to pull temporary border patrol agents from local borders. Larsen will get in a booth himself this week, traveling from Washington D.C. to work part of a shift at the Peace Arch border crossing to get a first hand look at challenges facing travelers and border staff. The INS has assured me they will reassess their decision if lines at the northern border increase, Larsen said. With the help of my constituents who have to wait in line and who have taken the time to share their stories with me, I am working to convince the INS that moving the border patrol agents back to the northern border is exactly what needs to be done. Until then, Ill be there myself.
Kice said regional INS authorities would continue to monitor border delays and allocate more resources as needed. If we see any kind of sustained or significant delays, well send up additional inspectors. We did see some delays over the holidays but I think that was an anomaly she said, adding that some delays were inevitable. As long as we remain at security level one were going to see longer waits.
People need to understand that we live in a different world and security has to be our priority, Kice said, adding the higher security at the border was a decision made the federal government and there was no indication it would lessen. She said different security measures experienced by different travelers at different crossings and on different days did not mean security was variable. This is not something being applied on an ad hoc basis, she said. People may see different staffing levels and they may see things change, but one thing that makes an effective security force is the expectation that you could be pulled over. You could have your trunk searched.
Larsen said Congress had allocated resources to keep traffic flowing and lines short while security stays high, and that more permanent inspectors at the border would be the long-term answer to protecting national security while preserving economic security. We have more funding to increase both INS and customs staff at the northern border, he said.
Kice said the INS 2002 budget authorizes the agency to add 348 new inspectors and 510 new border patrol agents, 25 percent of whom will go to the northern border. Supplemental anti-terrorism legislation waiting for the Presidents signature could also bring 300 more inspectors and 100 border patrol agents north. All of this is in the pipeline and were moving forward with recruiting, hiring, and training Kice said. Agents are made, not born. She added additional funding allocated for technology would make border operations more efficient. The NEXUS commuter lane, for example, could free up inspectors by pre-clearing participants. Its not only going to be a convenience but an enforcement enhancement, she said. Our inspectors can focus more attention on the casual crosser.
Hays said a tripling of staff at Washington borders, as authorized by Congress, would be a welcome change, if it came slowly.
Things are so bad now I dont have an inspector to work the Spokane airport and there are inspectors in eastern Washington who havent had a day off in weeks, he said. I dont think I could handle a tripling of staff all at once, but over the next year or two, we could staff all the lanes, do some enforcement work we havent been able to do wed be in great shape and the public would be well served..