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"Director says MIA's new immigration, customs facility faces federal staffing shortfall"
Sunday, June 3, 2012
Airport director says MIA's new immigration, customs facility faces federal
With the new immigration and customs facility at MIA's North Terminal set to
open soon, the airport director is worried there aren't enough federal
agents to work its 72 lanes.
By CHARLES RABIN
The Miami (FL) Herald
Two years into construction of a new $180 million immigration and customs
facility at the North Terminal of Miami International Airport, Miami-Dade
County leaders are worried there won't be enough federal agents to staff the
72 lanes scheduled to start operating by the end of July.
Airport Director Jose Abreu said Friday the airport might have to
consolidate the federal operation into only the North Terminal, and close
the 36 lanes now operating in the Central Terminal. Such a move would delay
the goal of eliminating the two- and three-hour waits international
passengers often face now when passing through immigration.
"Right now it's not just a possibility, it's a probability," Abreu said.
Federal officials, however, say they foresee no issue with staffing.
"Our position is, if they build it, we will come," said Migdalia Travis,
public affairs officer for Customs and Border Protection. "We will do
whatever is needed to man that facility."
The issue is so high on the county's priority list that last week Greater
Miami Chamber of Commerce vice president Alice Ancona flew to Washington,
D.C., to solicit support from Felice Gorordo, the White House's liaison to
the Latin-American business community.
Whatever the staffing outcome, it's not going to stop the long-anticipated
opening of the 400,000-square-foot immigration and customs facility, a
lengthy effort that has forced parts of the North Terminal to shut down for
extended periods of time.
Administrators say the project should turn the airport's out-of-date,
byzantine immigrations and customs space into a model of efficiency and
When it opens, it will mark the completion of a 12-year, $6.4 billion
airport turnaround that includes a new massive baggage handling system, the
new Central Terminal, and the sky train system. The North Terminal, which
services only American Airlines, is expected to double American's
international flights from 250 to 500 a day.
The immigration and customs facility will feature 72 lanes, up from 32, with
the goal of increasing capacity from about 1,200 passengers an hour to more
As it stands now, seasoned travelers and airport experts pan the immigration
and customs experience at MIA. It's not uncommon for passengers to wait for
hours, often in small, cold hallways, before being horded through lengthy
International business traveler Michael Claus said his sister visited Miami
recently and vowed never to return after her struggles through immigrations
and customs lines.
"It's painful at times," said Claus, president of the German American
Business Chamber and managing director of Hellmann Network in Doral. "It's
the endless wait, endless lines, and people don't really know where to go.
It's not a very nice welcome to the United States if you're a foreigner."
During a 30-day test period between February and March, 5,000 American
Airlines international passengers missed their connecting flights - in large
part because the current immigration and customs setup is so slow, airport
officials said, adding that they aim to bring those numbers down.
The new facility will allow passengers arriving on international flights to
get to immigration by a moving walkway or sky train. Then it's a short walk
through several glass doors into the new 300-foot-long facility and its 72
lanes. Frequent travelers can spend about $50 a year to bypass those lanes
by using one of six "global entry" kiosks which read their passports and
The line of entry booths stretches across the vast processing area, roughly
the length and width of a football field. Behind the booths is a long bank
of one-way mirrors through which federal agents can observe the processing
from a secure area.
The secure area, a dense warren of offices, interview cubicles, waiting
areas, weapons-storage depots and jail-like holding cells, is where
travelers whom agents want to interview will be taken. There also is a
secondary interview area divided into three sections separated by locking
A third area has spare cells containing a bench and a metal toilet in which
travelers with serious issues, including contraband or phony papers, will be
held for transfer to immigration or criminal detention. The cells have
padded, reinforced walls and solid metal doors. Viewing windows in the doors
have sliding covers that shut with a loud metallic bang.
Manufacturers make quieter covers, but federal agents wanted the noisier,
more intimidating type, Abreu said.
Travelers who avoid being ordered into the secret sector take a short
one-minute walk to pick up their bags and head off. If they have items to
declare, there are 12 customs checkpoints near the baggage ramps, up from
the four that were previously there. Then it's another short walk to the
main concourse, where they can get picked up, grab a cab, head off to the
rental car facility, or catch a connecting flight.
"In a perfect world," Abreu said, "you can make connections in 25 minutes.
And I expect that to be achieved."
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