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On the fence and running out of time

Overworked officers could result in weaker U.S. borders.
Overworked officers could result in weaker U.S. borders. (Lenny Ignelzi/associated Press)

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By Joe Davidson
Friday, October 23, 2009

One of the most common complaints among federal employees who enforce Uncle Sam's laws and regulations is that there are too few of them to properly protect the public.

But one area where one would expect that not to be the case, given our nation's recent history, is border protection.

Yet testimony before a House subcommittee Thursday painted a picture of potentially weak borders resulting from a shortage of Customs and Border Protection officers. That can lead to longer waits to cross the border, and worse, laxity in the fight against terrorism and narcotics trafficking.

CBP officers are caught between two laudable but sometimes conflicting goals. One is facilitating entry for legitimate travel. The other is keeping out smugglers and would-be bombers.

Wait time is a key measure of how easy it is for legitimate travelers to cross the border. The average vehicle inspection time is 45 seconds or less in regular inspection lanes, according to Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CBP officers.

"These cargo inspection times per vehicle cannot realistically be further shortened," she told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on border, maritime and global counterterrorism.

"CBP's continuing emphasis on reducing wait times without increasing staffing at the ports of entry creates an extremely challenging work environment for frontline CBP personnel."

Anyone crossing the border appreciates short waits. But it becomes a problem if officers are rushed because there are too few of them to do the job. Overworking officers can lead to sloppiness, said Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee.

"There is a valid argument to be made that staff shortages at ports of entry facilitate the importation of narcotics into the country," she said in a prepared statement. In an interview after the hearing, Sanchez said she was "very serious about trying to increase our staffing" and finding the money to do it.

Kelley told the panel that "CBP's own 2007 staffing model shows that several thousand additional CBP officers and agriculture specialists are needed at our ports of entry." She said the union has "repeatedly and continues to call on Congress for an increase of at least 4,000 new CBP officers in order for CBP to achieve its dual mission."

Todd Owen, executive director of CBP's cargo and conveyance security in the office of field operations, also testified at the hearing but did not directly address Kelley's points about staffing shortages. Calls to CBP's press officer were not returned.

Owen did say that the agency is undertaking initiatives "toward meeting the challenge of securing our borders and enforcing trade laws . . . without stifling the flow of legitimate trade and travel that is so critical to our nation's economy." He cited the Southwest Border Initiative as an example. "The initiative focuses on enhanced border security, including the deployment of hundreds of new personnel," he said.


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