Dear Ms. Marian Aldan-Pierce: Thank you for your letter of Jan. 25, reporting that the Marianas Visitors Authority is working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Commonwealth Ports Authority to expedite immigration screening at the Saipan airport. I have seen the long lines and I agree with you that moving through immigration quickly makes for a better visitor experience. Last year, I raised this concern with the two largest charter operators from China. I asked for their ideas on how we can reduce wait-times, while also protecting the integrity and long-term viability of the parole system that makes it so easy for Chinese tourists to come to the Marianas. This remains the central question.
Your letter also asks for verification of a statement, attributed to CBP Port Director Robert Havens, that “CBP is unable to open new agent positions as they have already reached the cap for employees set by Congress for the Saipan International Airport.” I have met with CBP officials here in Washington and asked the Congressional Research Service to provide me with accurate information about CBP resources and how they are deployed. Both CBP and CRS report to me that the statement you asked about is not true. There is no cap set by Congress on the number of CBP officers who can be assigned to Saipan.
It is true that Congress sets the annual funding level for Customs and Border Protection, which necessarily limits how many officers the agency can deploy in total nationwide. And, over the last several years, Congress has been increasing funding for officers in recognition of the need to speed processing at ports everywhere. CBP allocates these funds, using a staffing model based on the number of visitors arriving at each port of entry and related factors to determine how many officers are assigned at each location.
For security reasons CBP does not disclose the specific number of officers assigned at any port of entry. CBP has told me that the number 20, which has been widely reported in the media as the number of officers in the Marianas, is not accurate.
There are more than 20 currently employed; and there are more than 20 positions budgeted for our islands. It is true, however, that the number of officers on station is below the budgeted level. For that reason, screenings may have slowed and may have contributed to the concern voiced in your letter.
To shed light on your concern I requested—and CBP is now posting online—the wait-times that the agency records for arrivals at the Saipan airport. This will allow any interested member of the public to review in hour-by-hour detail how quickly passengers are being processed, to compare processing times at the Saipan airport from day to day, to see wait-times at other U.S. ports of entry, and to know how many officers were on duty at any given time. For instance, on Jan. 29, CBP reports, average wait-times varied from 5 minutes to 49 minutes; and, with the exception of persons taken aside for extra vetting, no one waited more than 90 minutes.
Of course, 90 minutes is too long; and we all share the goal of improving these times further. To that end I would like to invite the Marianas Visitors Authority and other relevant parties—the Commonwealth Ports Authority, airlines, Customs and Border Protection, and others in the tourism economy—to meet with me at the Saipan congressional office in the near future to establish a common understanding of the facts and to discuss what each can do to better the visitor experience.
Among the ideas worth considering is managing the arrival of aircraft so that CBP may make most efficient use of its officers. Expediting the hiring of CBP staff, offering incentives for Saipan postings, and putting more focus on local hires in the Marianas are certainly to be encouraged. I understand, too, that CBP and CPA are in discussion of a reimbursable cost agreement that could shorten wait-times by providing more overtime for CBP officers. Congress has authorized agreements of this nature that allow CBP to enter into public-private partnerships and that permit the private sector to fund improvements in border facilities and port services, including by underwriting overtime and funding additional CBP officers. CPA and MVA may want to consider such investments to improve the visitor experience.
Beyond what can be done at the Saipan airport itself to shorten the time each individual passenger is reviewed by CBP upon arrival, there are measures that could be taken prior to arrival. Prescreening visitors in their home country either in person or electronically, when they schedule their travel and/or before allowing them to board, reduces wait-times. I understand, for instance, that each deplaning passenger from China seeking to enter the Marianas under parole now takes on average 110 seconds to process. By comparison, a passenger who is prescreened in their home country using ESTA, the electronic system for travel authorization, requires only 25 seconds upon arrival. MVA, however, expressed concern about the cost that would be imposed on potential tourists by ESTA, when this was proposed by Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo last year.
Similarly, moving away from the current parole system for Chinese and Russian visitors to a requirement that these passengers obtain visas in their home country prior to departure could expedite their processing upon arrival. A visa requirement could harm our economy by reducing the number of tourists who are allowed to enter the Marianas.
But requiring a tourist visa or employing other forms of prescreening could address the concerns expressed by MVA, government officials, and the general public about birth tourism and the entry of persons of questionable character, whose exclusion could have a positive effect on our islands. These are trade-offs you may want to consider.
I hope this information helps you. Please consider my offer to bring parties together for further face-to-face discussion.
Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan
Member of Congress