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Miami-Dade ports to return staffing to pre-sequestration levels

Miami International Airport and PortMiami were chosen Friday as one of five sets of ports around the nation to participate in a reimbursement program that will allow staffing at customs and immigration to return to pre-sequestration levels.

The announcement by U.S. Customs and Border Protection means the seaport and the airport, which last year almost doubled the size of its immigration and Customs facility, can return to the staffing level it had before the series of mandated federal budget cuts known as sequestration. That’s still a long way from where airport officials expected to be at this point.

“It’s to get us back to where we were,” said MIA Spokesman Greg Chin.

The program will allow the seaport and the airport to reimburse Customs for the overtime that had been cut from workers shifts since federal sequestration began in March.

Other ports chosen for the pilot program are in Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, El Paso, and South Texas. The county has already put aside more than $6 million to cover overtime costs. Under the plan the money can only be used to subsidize the staffing of federal Customs workers at the ports, not for normal payroll.

Airport Director Emilio Gonzalez said he visited customs leadership twice in Washington D.C., and submitted a written proposal on how the airport would enact the plan that included the amount of money saved to pay for the workers.

After sequestration kicked in, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visited Miami-Dade County’s ports. She was then lobbied by several South Florida congressional representatives who asked that the county be included in the pilot program known as the Customs and Border Protection Reimbursable Services Program.

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who fought for the pilot program, released a statement Friday saying, “Trade and tourism are two large industries that fuel South Florida’s economic engine, and the additional CBP staff will alleviate serious understaffing problems at both Miami International Airport and PortMiami.”

The announcement helps, but it does little to get MIA where it needs to be. That’s because last summer, when the airport’s massive $6.4 billion overhaul was finally completed, the federal agents needed to staff Customs areas were not provided, as airport directors claim they were promised. Also included in the airport construction job is a new $180 million immigration and Customs facility.

The airport doubled the capacity in the North Terminal, hoping to ease the way for 3,000 passengers an hour to make their way through Customs. Capacity had been 1,200 an hour. The hope was to cut down on the long waits that have plagued travelers for decades at MIA.

But with no new federal agents despite pleas by former Airport Director Jose Abreu, the airport had little choice but to leave several Customs lanes closed, at times closing the entire 40-lane South Terminal so the 72-lane North Terminal could be staffed near capacity.

“It was already a problem before,” said Chin. “Sequestration made it worse.”