Image: Customs To Merge Into Department Of Homeland Security
A drug-sniffing dog catches a scent in a door as a U.S. Customs inspector uses a "buster," a relative density meter, which indicates that the car's panels are filled with a substance inspectors believe to be marijuana in February in San Ysidro, Calif.
By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com

A $20 million budget shortfall is forcing cuts at U.S. ports of entry that could impact security, MSNBC.com has learned. The deficit has led officials to make a series of security compromises that include replacing INS inspectors with their less-qualified, lower-paid Customs counterparts on heavily trafficked Sundays and holidays. U.S. officials, who announced Tuesday a plan to merge these inspector jobs into a single position, denied that the current cost-saving measures weaken security in any way.

The budget problem is national in scope and “it goes without saying that the implications are serious for every port of entry in the country,” says a Department of Homeland Security memo obtained by MSNBC.com. The memo pegs overtime paid to INS inspectors as “one of the most critical issues” the new department has had to face. Port directors are told they “will have to become creative” in finding ways to slash costs.

“It is imperative that we react quickly at all our locations and that we do not spend money we do not have,” says the July 2 memo written by Denise Crawford, who oversees U.S. Customs and Border Protection field operations in North Florida. Crawford’s memo also notes that, although it’s possible additional money could be found, “any supplemental money that could be allocated will likely fall far short of what we would need based on our current spending levels.”

An immediate consequence of the cost-cutting has been the removal of INS inspectors from working Sunday and holiday shifts because on these days they earn double time, a federal pay scale anomaly tracing back to a 1931 Act of Congress.

“Why in God’s name is Customs and Border Protection doing this? Especially now, we’re coming up to the anniversary to 9/11,” wonders a senior Customs inspector who works out of a major eastern airport. “It’s not a secret that anniversaries mean something to the loonies that want to reach violent ends.”

In some cases, INS inspectors are simply removed from all overtime work and the port operates short-staffed. In other instances, Customs inspectors are used to fill the jobs typically done by INS personnel. Customs officers get time and half for weekend and holiday work.

One goal for Customs and Border Protection officials is melding the “legacy” INS and Customs inspectors jobs. Traditionally, “Customs dealt with product, Immigration dealt with people,” says a retired Customs agent. Customs and INS staff also received different training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Customs inspectors went through 11 weeks of initial training; INS inspectors had 17 weeks of training.

That situation ended abruptly on Tuesday when Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced that, starting immediately, all new hires for Customs and Border Protection inspector jobs will be trained to perform all the jobs currently done by legacy Customs, Immigration and Agricultural inspectors. These new “CBP officers” as they will be called, are intended to perform the primary or first-pass inspection of people entering the U.S. If questions or suspicions arise, the primary inspector can send the person on to a more rigorous secondary inspection.

The first class of CBP officers starts training in October and won’t graduate until the end of the year. In the spring of 2004, current Customs, Immigration and Agricultural inspectors will begin cross-training for the new officer positions, said a CBP statement on the new program.

Impact of cuts
“I also note that Sunday shifts will be more burdensome,” writes the director of a northern port of entry in a July 17 memo obtained by MSNBC.com. CBP “is cutting legacy INS staff so that they will not staff the traditional number of primary lanes,” the memo says.

The cost-cutting is weakening security at ports of entry, say INS and Customs inspectors who, along with the union officials, are irked at government officials who believe the two professional disciplines are so easily interchangeable.

“We’re not making widgets here, we’re protecting the American people,” said Charles Showalter, an INS union official.

There are more than 300 ports of entry in the U.S. In 2001, more than 510 million people passed through U.S. land, air and water ports, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Of those, 63 percent were foreign nationals, the AILA says.

Immigration inspectors are often the first line of defense, the “first bite at the apple” in stopping potential terrorist from entering the U.S. said Mike Cutler, a retired former INS special agent with experience on counterterrorism task forces. “About half of the illegal aliens currently in the country are believed to have not run the border but are believed to have entered the U.S. through ports of entry.”

Plumbers doing carpentry
“The real issue is national security,” Showalter says, insisting he isn’t taking “a shot at the Customs guys, they are true professionals.” However, when a Customs inspector is made to step into a job typically held by an INS inspector then “what we’re doing is asking a master plumber to do carpentry work,” Showalter said.

CBP “compensated” for the budget shortfall through “a closer assessment of resource allocation,” said Barry Morrissey, a CBP spokesman out of Washington, D.C. “And then adjustments after that assessment,” Morrissey said. Swapping out INS inspectors with Customs inspectors, Morrissey acknowledged, was part of that adjustment. “And we did that with the belief that we have not compromised border security, that’s our No. 1 priority,” he said.

Morrissey acknowledged that Customs and INS personnel are each operating from budgets that existed before March 1 when some 26 federal agencies and departments were merged on to create what is now the Department of Homeland Security. “So there may be, with that said, some discrepancy in dollar disbursements,” Morrissey said.

'Homeland security on the cheap'
The view of Customs inspectors about the current cross-staffing practices isn’t any kinder. “This is homeland security on the cheap,” says a 20-year senior Customs inspector at a major East coast airport. Currently Customs inspectors cross-training to perform a legacy INS inspector job are given eight hours of training and a couple of interactive CDs, and “then thrown into the breach,” and expected to perform up the standards of veteran INS inspectors, said the senior Customs inspector. “My guys are horrified they’ll miss something.”

In theory, INS and Customs inspectors are now “cross-designated now for each agency’s primary mission,” Morrissey said.

Bill Anthony, director of media services at CBP dismisses the entire issue, saying, “This is just a union beef” and that anyone writing the story is “being used” by union officials who are soured over the fact that the rank and file are being denied overtime pay. “Overtime is not really a God-given constitutional right,” Anthony said.

When pressed to explain why INS and Customs inspectors feel security is weakened under the current working conditions, Anthony bristles.

“They [INS inspectors] are into this thing that the only way anyone is going to sympathize with them is if they prove the sky is falling and that Osama bin Laden is walking through a Port coming in to bomb LAX,” Anthony said. “Otherwise nobody is going to care that they’re making $20,000 less and are being replaced by people that are equally competent if not more so.”

Warning signs
It’s unclear how long Washington has been aware that budget constraints were forcing port directors to cut back on local resources “however painful,” as the author of the July 17 memo characterized the moves he had to make to keep from breaking his budget.

At least one private sector airport official, Larry Dale, CEO and president of the Orlando-Sanford International airport in Florida, said he wrote letters to Robert Bonner, head of the CBP, in May to complain about a lack of INS inspector staffing.

Dale said he was often “very shorthanded,” finding himself with between eight and 11 inspectors to fill the airport’s 20 inspection stations. Dale says local CBP officials told him the short-staffing problem related directly to the agency’s budgetary woes but that only Washington could make decisions affecting staffing levels at his airport. “That got my dander up just a bit,” Dale said.

So Dale forced CBP’s position by taking pictures of the overcrowded Immigration and Customs inspection areas to document the situation; he then made plans to take the pictures to Washington and plead his case with officials there.

Sometime in July, CBP began sending 10 additional INS inspectors to Dale’s airport every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Union officials in the area say the inspectors are sent over from nearby Orlando International; Dale says CBP never told him where they found the additional personnel.

Dale’s experience highlights a domino effect created by the shortfall.

“Where do you suppose these Customs guys are coming from that are going into the primary Immigration booths at the large airports?” asks a senior Customs inspector. “These are the guys doing the secondary [more in-depth] Customs exam lanes,” he said. This leads to a situation in which, as more Customs officers are called on to fill INS slots, there are less people to do passenger processing, the senior Customs inspector said. “We end up sending fewer and fewer people to be more closely examined,” he said.

Competency not an issue
No one is questioning the competency of Customs inspectors; but their are doubts about the training and tools provided to them.

Customs inspectors still don’t have access the same databases that INS inspectors use to weed out potential terrorists and criminal elements, despite being asked to perform the same tasks. [MSNBC is not naming those databases for security reasons.]

A CBP memo dated Aug. 18 obtained by MSNBC.com addresses the critical need to “consolidate” database access now that inspectors from Customs, INS and Agriculture are all under one roof. The memo says a three-phase system is now in place to shepherd that consolidation process.

“Effective October 1, 2003, all necessary programming changes are expected to be in place to allow all inspectors to perform the necessary” database access functions, the memo says. “The current restrictions in place based on legacy agency code will be removed.”

CBP’s Morrissey said that there are several layers of procedures in place so that any time a Customs inspector or INS inspector has a question regarding someone’s eligibility to enter the U.S., all they have to do is call for a more intensive “secondary” inspection process.

But INS and Customs inspectors tell MSNBC.com that such procedures rarely work as planned. Mistakes are more likely at peak traffic times, such as long lines at border entry points on weekends and when several international flights unload and must be cleared through Immigration and Customs.

Money may be the overriding current problem; long term, it is a lack of people, says union official Showalter.

“Customs inspectors are still the best people to do Customs work and Immigration inspectors are the best people to do Immigration work and neither group is fully prepared to do the other’s work,” Showalter said. “We simply need to get more highly qualified individuals all across the country, at [ports of entry] to do this work. It’s of vital national interest.”

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