Miami-Dade Aviation Department Director Emilio González flew to Washington on Monday to plead with federal authorities to immediately increase the number of passport control officers at Miami International Airport because immigration lines there continue to be too long.
“This gateway airport,” González told a news conference at MIA before leaving, “continues to be the second-largest airport in international air passenger travel and the largest airport in the U.S. in air cargo… and the numbers keep growing.”
González’s statements underscored what continues to be a crisis, as Cuban-American Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called it, in international air travel in Miami. Tens of thousands of travelers arriving from abroad often wait long periods to clear immigration after getting off their airplanes. González said that in one case, a group of travelers had to wait 2½ hours in the immigration line before being admitted.
Only last December, González and Customs and Border Protection officials in Miami announced a major plan to reduce the time international passengers must wait in line to see a passport control officer to be admitted into the country.
On Dec. 20, González announced that the aviation department would pay CBP up to $6 million over the next six years to cover overtime costs so the agency could summon more passport control officers in a bid to shorten the notoriously long MIA immigration lines.
But González acknowledged Monday that the overtime plan is not working as originally anticipated because the number of international passengers arriving at MIA is increasing.
“Our numbers are off the charts,” González said. “We need immediate help with regard to CBP officers processing our visitors. It’s no longer an ‘if,’ but a ‘when.’ It’s a ‘must.’ ”
Citing specifics, González said MIA grew by 1 million passengers last year and that if the same growth rate continued, the airport will grow by another million passengers: “And that’s not counting the World Cup; that’s not counting the new airlines that have announced their presence at MIA later this year.”
MIA expects to act as a sort of transit hub for international passengers flying to the World Cup tournament starting in June in Brazil.
MIA handled at least 19.4 million international passengers in 2012, according to airport statistics.
González noted that airport officials had received “numerous complaints” from tour organizers about the long lines and the problem needs to be resolved.
Travelers from other countries interviewed at MIA recently complained about the long lines.
“We waited in line a total of about two hours,” said Viviana Contardo, a Chilean tourist, on Feb. 19.
Recent county surveys showed that one of the reasons cited by some travelers why they would not return to Miami is the long immigration lines at the airport.
“We need the federal government to treat [MIA] as a national asset or else our growth is going to stop, the waits are going to be longer and people are going to find other places to go,” González said.