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Airport director says MIA’s new immigration, customs facility faces federal staffing shortfall

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Administrators say the project should turn the airport’s out-of-date, byzantine immigrations and customs space into a model of efficiency and comfort.

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 than 3,000.

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 lines.

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 fingerprints electronically.

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 doors.

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.”

Miami Herald staff writer Andres Viglucci contributed to this story.