Leaders of a major federal employee union urged lawmakers on Tuesday to authorize additional funding for hiring more officers at Customs and Border Protection. The plea was in response to plans to expand inspections of foreign travelers at overseas airports before they travel to the United States.
Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in written testimony submitted to Congress that the CBP’s plan to open additional preclearance sites at foreign international airports could exacerbate the agency’s staffing shortage if lawmakers do not allow it to fill existing vacancies.
Under the preclearance program, CBP stations officers at foreign airports, where they inspect travelers to the U.S. before they board their flights, in an effort to enhance security and lessen congestion at domestic airports.
“NTEU recognizes the security benefits of preclearance, including preventing high-risk travelers from boarding aircraft bound for the U.S. and reduced wait times for passenger processing at the busiest U.S. international airports,” Reardon wrote. “Nonetheless, NTEU has serious concerns about the impact of preclearance expansion on the already critical staffing shortages at the nation’s ports of entry.”
At a House Transportation and Protective Security Subcommittee hearing Tuesday, Todd Owen, executive assistant commissioner at CBP’s office of field operations, confirmed his agency is planning to expand the program to a number of new foreign airports. The current preclearance program operates at 15 airports in six countries, and employs more than 600 officers.
“Right now we have two signed agreements, one for Punta Cana [in the Dominican Republic] and another for Stockholm, Sweden,” Owen told lawmakers. “We’re just waiting for the host countries to address infrastructure issues and any legal authority issues that they need to address. And we’re in negotiations at various stages with 10 additional countries for further expansion.”
CBP has struggled to meet congressionally mandated staffing floors in recent years, in part because of burdensome hiring requirements. The Trump administration called for hiring 5,000 more Border Patrol agents earlier this year, but officials with the National Border Patrol Council have said the initiative has been sluggish, in part because the agency must compete with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which is undergoing a hiring surge of its own and is able to offer better compensation.
Reardon said that CBP officer staffing at ports of entry are already below targets, and that Trump’s hiring surge calls for additional border agents, but no new officers.
“There is an existing vacancy rate of nearly 1,400 funded CBP officers at the ports, and according to CBP’s analytic workload staffing model, an additional 2,100 CBP officers need to be funded and hired in order to meet 2017 staffing needs—translating into a total CBP officer staffing shortage of 3,500 today,” Reardon wrote. “As preclearance operations come on board, NTEU asks how can CBP [office of field operations] staff these new locations when it has a current staffing shortage of 3,500 CBP officer and 631 agriculture specialist positions?”
Reardon said Congress must act to fund an influx of new CBP officers to complement the efforts to increase staffing along the southern and northern border and at ICE in the fiscal 2018 budget.
“If Congress is serious about improving aviation security around the globe, there is an opportunity to address the justified and documented need to fund additional CBP staffing at the ports in the omnibus bill that will be considered later this year,” he wrote.
This story was updated to clarify that NTEU is requesting additional funding for CBP officers, not Border Patrol agents.