Immigration is one of the highest-profile issues of our time. From caravans to the separation of families, from “The Wall” to “Dreamers,” it seems as though immigration has been in the news daily.
Most of that attention is focused on the Mexican border, where U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have been reassigned from airports around the country — creating an often-overlooked shortage of CBP officers to process international air passengers and cargo coming into the U.S.
That topic will be in the spotlight Thursday at Airport Council International’s seminar on international aviation issues, attended by more than 100 delegates representing nearly 40 airports. The lead session, presented by CBP Deputy Executive Director Dan Tanciar, will focus on the strain that growing international air travel is placing on customs and border protection officers and how the agency is using technology to approach these issues.
The supply of officers is a constant conversation in the airport industry, said Matt Cornelius, ACI’s vice president, air policy.
“The shortage of officers has been a chronic issue since (CBP) became part of the Department of Homeland Security,” Cornelius said. “They have never had enough officers to begin with. The second issue of temporarily reassigning officers is not unfamiliar to us. We have a very good relationship with the CBP and work with them to help when they are moving officers.”
Cornelius said the group’s goal is to have the agency reassign officers from many different airports rather than just a few, so that no airport is at a severe disadvantage.
A look at the employment numbers over the years shows why that move is necessary. Customs and Border Protection ended fiscal year 2017 with fewer than 19,500 agents, its lowest level since it employed 17,500 officers in fiscal year 2008. But with a hiring process that can take up to 18 months, the CBP was fighting a losing battle in trying to reverse years of losing more CBP officers — to retirement and other issues — faster than it could hire new ones.
Recently, however, that trend has changed thanks to changes in the hiring process.
“The good news is for the first time in many, many, many years we are hiring (agents) at a rate that is outpacing the rate at which we are losing (them),” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in October.
This comes as good news to airports around the country — some of which, such as Orlando International Airport, had CBP officers reassigned to the southwest border.
As Pittsburgh International Airport’s international traffic began to rise — up 27.5 percent from 2017 to 2018 — officials were proactive and sought community and governmental support to ensure adequate CBP coverage.
PIT officials have worked closely with CBP to ensure the airport has the right combination of staffing and technology through Automated Passport Control and Global Entry kiosks, said Bryan Dietz, the airport’s vice president of air service development. But the airport hopes to add more international routes over the next several years. Presently, international routes at PIT consist of London (British Airways), Frankfurt (Condor), Reykjavik (WOW), several Caribbean destinations including Cancun (Southwest, Delta, and others), and Qatar cargo. (Flights from Canada are precleared at the departing airport.)
The number of CBP officers also can have a direct impact on the local economy, which includes many international businesses. According to the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, southwest Pennsylvania is home to more than 400 foreign-owned businesses, which employ more than 50,000 workers.
“Right now, the Pittsburgh market is still growing and has so much potential to expand even more, but if we didn’t have proper staffing, passengers and cargo could go elsewhere,” Dietz said. “We don’t want to lose that edge.”