CBP Officers at Airports: CBP has struggled with hiring and retaining officers at our nation’s airports. Over the past five years, international air travel has increased by 25-30 percent, yet the number of CBP officers available to process additional travelers and new flights barely changed because attrition has outpaced hiring. In 2018, CBP made slow, but steady, hiring gains and ended the fiscal year with a net gain of 378 new officers. The FY 2019 final appropriations bill included funding for 600 additional CBP officers and language permitting the agency to utilize user fee balances to hire more officers. CBP hopes to end FY 2019 with over 1,000 new officers onboard. Even if this hiring materializes, CBP officer levels will remain below the agency’s workload staffing model level that annually identifies how many officers are necessary to meet current and anticipate needs at all U.S. ports of entry. Additionally, regular, but temporary, reassignments of CBP officers from airports to the Southwest border to address critical immigration processing needs of undocumented immigrants at land border ports of entries may lead to increased wait times at airports, especially those already short staffed, during peak summer travel months.
AAAE supports S. 1004, legislation that would direct CBP to hire no fewer than 600 new officers a year above the current attrition level until the agency meets the targets outlined in its workload staffing model. Also, the bill would require CBP to provide greater transparency into the operation of its reimbursable services program and temporary staffing reassignments to the southern border, including requiring CBP to notify stakeholders at impacted ports at least 10 days prior to implementing any temporary reassignment.
In late October, AAAE and other coalition members strongly urged the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to provide funding for 1,200 CBP officers to meet current and future staffing needs in the final FY 2020 Homeland Security spending bill. This level matched the House Appropriations Committee’s recommended officer level instead of a significantly lower level in both the budget request and the Senate Appropriations spending bill. The letter noted that “providing additional CBP officers at this time of growing volumes of international passengers and cargo would both reduce lengthy wait times and facilitate new economic opportunities in communities throughout the United States.” Our message was heard. The final FY 2020 spending bill included sufficient resources from appropriated dollars and user fees for CBP to hire a total of 1,200 new officers and 240 agriculture specialists during FY 2020.
Biometrics: Biometrics, using facial recognition, has the potential to enhance both security and efficiency in the airport environment. Both CBP and TSA have been working, along with strategic airport and airline partners, to verify passengers’ identities biometrically in lieu of using boarding passes, passports, and drivers licenses. CBP’s first biometric pilot programs began as a result of a longstanding Federal mandate to verify international travelers departing from the United States, and the use of biometrics has spread quickly.
Currently, more than two dozen airports and one U.S. airline have committed to using facial recognition for biometric exit. In exchange, CBP began using facial recognition to process international arriving passengers faster. In mid-2019, CBP began to roll out new cameras and software upgrades to biometric exit airports to better capture and identify travelers and expedite the arrival process. TSA has been slower to adopt facial images as a primary means of identity verification for aviation passenger security screening and continues to conduct pilot tests at airports, including one ongoing in Atlanta, and more planned in 2020. TSA’s October 2018 biometric roadmap explained that the agency will use a phased approach to implement biometric identity verification, first focusing on the biometrics provided by PreCheck members before expanding to additional domestic travelers. Also, airports and airlines have begun using biometrics to allow travelers to check their bag or check in for a flight at a kiosk. The new biometric procedures, in most instances, are faster and passengers are largely receptive to the new technology. Passengers can “opt out” but few do so. However, questions have been raised by privacy advocates and Congress about individual privacy implications, accuracy, and data protections when that still need to be addressed through additional work.