Florida Gov. Rick Scott weighed in Thursday on a staffing controversy involving customs and immigration officers at Miami International Airport, telling the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that the personnel shortage has the potential to damage Floridas image and business growth.
In a letter to homeland security Director Janet Napolitano, Scott said because Customs and Border Protection cannot adequately meet staffing levels at MIA only about half the lanes are fully staffed baggage is getting lost and passengers are missing flights.
This problem could potentially do considerable damage to Floridas international competitiveness, which could adversely affect job creation in our state, Scott wrote. Over one million jobs in Florida depend on international trade and investment, and this is one of the healthiest and fastest growing sectors in our economy.
Customs and Border Protections Miami spokeswoman Magdalia Travis referred a request for a response to the agencys Washington headquarters. That office did not call back.
Miami-Dade County is near the completion of a $6.4 billion, 12-year overhaul of the airport, which includes a $180 million state-of-the-art immigration and customs facility with 72 lanes in the North Terminal. A similar immigration station with 48 lanes was also built in the new South Terminal.
The construction was designed to increase capacity from 1,200 passengers an hour to more than 3,000.
Until June, Customs and Border Protection had said the stations would be fully staffed, stating, Our position is, if they build it, we will come.
But when the North Terminal opened in July, Customs and Border Protection failed to supply enough agents to fill the 152 immigration lanes at the airports three terminals, north, south and central. Now, only about half the lanes have enough staffing. To make up for the shortfall, Airport Director Jose Abreu shut the Central Terminal immigration lanes and shifted its staff to the North Terminal.
That means a walk of up to 1,400 feet, or about a quarter mile, for some passengers.
Tthe lack of personnel defeats the point of expanding and improving the customs and immigration stations, Abreu said, because even though the physical capacity of the operation has increased, half the lanes are closed and folks are forced to walk long distances.
Abreu said his staff used local and state contacts to get the governors attention. They discussed the problem when Scott called him about three months ago.
Abreu said to alleviate some of the problem, he has offered to pay overtime, but it appears there just arent enough federal agents to staff the lanes.
The airport directors biggest fear now is that Homeland Security might grant Brazil a visa waiver option that President Barack Obama favors. That would allow travelers from designated countries to visit the United States for 90 days without a non-immigrant visitor visa. Brazilians flock to the United States. According to Abreu about 3.8 million visited last year with 1.5 million traveling through Miami.
Abreu said if the waiver goes through, that number would double.
I can assure you, it will increase traffic substantially, he said. Where do you think theyre going to go?