United States Customs and Border Patrol Field Operations director Brian J. Humphrey said expanding their pre-clearance program is among the options they are looking at that would help lessen the long waiting period at the Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport.
Tourists arriving on Saipan have to stand in line an average of three to five hours before they get clearance from CBP. Another reason for the long lines is the simultaneous arrival of flights.
Humphrey, who met with members of the CNMI Legislature on Monday, said they have been negotiating with the Japanese government in implementing the pre-clearance program. The U.S. State Department is also part of the continuing negotiations.
“Japan expressed an interest in the preclearance expansion program and we’re optimistic this would push through. The first application is for Narita [International Airport] and there are also plans to also include Kansai after they applied in spring of last year,” said Humphrey.
He added that once the program kicks off in Japan they would also look into adding South Korea, Chinese-Taipei, and possibly China as likely candidates for the preclearance system.
There are currently 15 locations in six countries where the U.S. has preclearance of air travelers. They are in Canada, Ireland, the United Arab Emirates, Bermuda, Aruba, and the Bahamas where over 600 CBP officers and agricultural specialists are stationed to screen and process more than 17.5 million U.S.-bound passengers annually.
CBP Field Operations Hawaii Area Port director Bruce Murley and Saipan Port director Robert Havens joined Humphrey in Monday’s meeting at the House chamber of the Hon. Jesus P. Mafnas Memorial Building in Capital Hill where local legislators asked them various questions on airport and immigration clearance issues.
Preclearance’s concept is to have the passengers, who are about to leave in countries that have the CBP facility, be processed by CBP officers before they board their direct flight to the U.S.
Passengers and their baggage would go through the same process of getting cleared by immigration, Customs, and agriculture inspection by CBP officers and agriculture specialists in the preclearance program.
They would no longer fall in line when they arrive at their destination since their immigration documents, screening, and other inspection was done in their country of origin that has CBP’s preclearance facility.
Humphrey said the preclearance program would be a big help to the CNMI. “They [tourists] would arrive here without going in line since they have already been processed. So it would cut the waiting time and the long lines.”
He added that CBP would work with the CNMI Division of Customs where they had already discussed this with director Jose Mafnas. “CNMI Customs officials could join us in Japan for operation and processing purposes.”
Humphrey said they had already met with Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (D-MP) and told them automating the conditional parole program is another option that they are looking at.
“There are a number of factors that need to come together to answer the question on wait times. We’re going to work with the CNMI government on the matter of conditional parole and to make sure we make it a better process. Not to lose the procedure that’s already in place but to modernize and automate it,” said Humphrey.
The Marianas Visitors Authority had already purchased four automated passport control machines that would soon be installed in kiosks at the airport. MVA is waiting for its arrival.
“We [CBP, Torres, and Sablan] made a commitment of working together to make the work better for the CNMI. It is a combination of modernizing the parole screening process and working with carriers to also educate their passengers to prepare their complete documents before they arrive here,” added Humphrey.
“Rather than lining up with incomplete papers when they present themselves to be processed. If they present themselves having not completed their documents, the CBP officer has no choice but to turn them away, and put them back in queue once their papers are in order.”
He said automating the conditional parole program would cut the time of processing each passenger. “So, instead of having a paper-based manual process that takes longer time for a passenger, we’re looking at automated like [the electronic system for travel authorization] system.”
“If we could automate the process for a typical passenger that alone would save significant amount of time. We’re looking more like ESTA for those coming here under the U.S. conditional parole and visa waiver programs,” said Humphrey.
Delegate Madeleine Z. Bordallo (D-Guam) last week introduced House Resolution 274 or the Modernizing Travel to the Marianas (CNMI and Guam) Act. HR 274 aims to give CBP additional resources to enhance the processing of arriving visitors.
Humphrey added that CBP also has to take responsibility on the wait time delays, as they need to hire additional personnel for the vacant positions in the CNMI. “There have been 80 local applicants here in the CNMI and we have 23 [officers] out of the 27 that we have on board, including one supervisor.
He said there are a number of officers that would be coming in from the mainland that is set to arrive in the coming months aside from those that they plan to hire locally.
“Another part of the solution is to work with the airlines to see if they could spread out their flights in such way they don’t stretch out our resources too thin. We have to staff more than one shift apart splitting our pool if there are two unique peak hours,” said Humphrey.
“If we could work with the carriers to either bring those two peak hours to one or bring the two peaks closer together, then we can staff both peaks on a single shift. That’s part of the answer.”