Northern border staff diversions prompt bipartisan legislation
Bill proposes maintaining staff levels at U.S.-Canada ports of entry
WASHINGTON — The temporary transfer of federal Customs and Border Protection officers from the U.S. northern border to the southern border prompted a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to introduce legislation this week that would regulate staffing at U.S.-Canada ports of entry.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and U.S. Reps. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, and Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, have co-sponsored a bill that would establish a minimum number of Customs and Border Protection officers required to work at the northern border. The minimum would be at least 3,808 officers at border ports of entry from Maine to Washington state, sources said.
"Sacrificing customs operations at and the security of the northern border for the sake of the southern border equated to nothing more than robbing Peter to pay Paul, and we must do everything possible to ensure it doesn't happen again," Schumer said, describing the legislation at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo last week. "Not only did this misguided plan create obnoxious and lengthy wait times at northern border crossings, but it jeopardized vital tourism revenue and created grave security risks."
Stefanik's district comprises hundreds of miles of U.S.-Canada frontier. Stefanik, Higgins and 11 other House members sent a letter to the Homeland Security secretary in May objecting to the diversion of the officers.
"Travel and trade between Canada and the North Country is a critical source of revenue that directly impacts our local economy, as well as the national economy," Stefanik said Thursday. "Maintaining strong staffing levels at the northern border will ensure our tourism industry and economy are not stifled and that CPB officers are able to effectively carry out their duties."
CBP Office of Field Operations officers regulate ports of entry, while border patrol agents guard between the ports.
There are roughly 1,190 Office of Field Operations officers and supervisors working at New York state's northern border ports of entry in Alexandria Bay, Buffalo, Cape Vincent, Champlain, Massena, Ogdensburg, Rochester, Trout River, as well as airports in Albany, Rome and Syracuse. Thousands more officers work at ports of entry in other states along the U.S.-Canada border, which is the longest land border between any two countries in the world.
But a few months ago, CBP reassigned 731 officers from ports of entry nationwide to the U.S.-Mexico border because "apprehensions of family units and unaccompanied children from Central America had overwhelmed Border Patrol capabilities and facilities," a CBP official said. From the western New York area, 56 officers were diverted, Higgins said.
By Aug. 4, the number of temporarily deployed officers nationwide had dropped to 400, the CBP official said.
Now, 162 Office of Field Operations officers from around the country are temporarily assisting at the southern border, according to the office of Higgins and Stefanik. About 100 of those officers are anticipated to return to their home stations by Sunday and the rest will return later this month.
From New York, 11 officers remain temporarily deployed, Higgins said.
Data on the transfer of these officers became available to members of Congress in a report this week.
"This started as a voluntary diversion of staffing and it is now compulsory," Higgins said.
The lawmakers said they are worried about the removal of the officers during the busiest season for border crossings between the U.S. and Canada. Roughly 11 million northern border crossings are made in July and August, nearly double the number of crossings in January and February, congressional staff said.
"We're worried about national security and we're worried about travel," Higgins said. "The Peace Bridge in Buffalo is the second busiest border crossing for commercial vehicles – first for passenger vehicles. If there are unnecessary delays, people change their economic behavior."