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Kerlikowske revisits Buffalo for scrutiny of Peace Bridge

Visiting the Peace Bridge on Thursday, the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection examined the 6-month-old pilot program to inspect U.S.-bound trucks while still in Canada, and he repeated his belief that the flood of asylum-seekers at the Mexican border amounts to a humanitarian disaster.

Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske led the Buffalo Police Department from 1994 to 1999 before moving on to other high-level posts in law enforcement. About five months ago, he was sworn in to run a federal agency that is 225 years old, employs 60,000 people, spends $12.4 billion annually and collects more money than any federal unit except the Internal Revenue Service.

Customs officers this winter began inspecting trucks bound for the United States at the more expansive plaza in Fort Erie, Ont., in an experiment to ease congestion at the busy Peace Bridge and smooth the way for cargo entering the country. Kerlikowske called it another example of the agency’s effort to safely expedite travel and commerce.

“You don’t find anybody in Customs and Border Protection that isn’t interested in trying to partner with industry,” he said, and added later: “We have to figure out smart, safe ways to expedite that cargo.”

For the most part, the strategy to inspect trucks in Fort Erie seem to be working, said David Bradley, president and CEO of the Canadian Trucking Alliance, which represents 4,500 trucking companies. Bradley said Thursday he has heard few complaints. But he said he would still like to see truckers freed of the second stop they must make in order to learn, after crossing the Peace Bridge, that they can truly resume their routes.

The second stop, which for most truck drivers lasts just a few seconds, probably isn’t going away, said Randy J. Howe, director of field operations for the agency’s Buffalo Field Office. After crossing the bridge, trucks are funneled to a “release booth,” but, in the meantime, they have been rolling along with vehicles that have not yet been inspected, he explained.

“It is probably streamlined to the extent that we can,” Howe said. “We have to verify that the truck’s been cleared and that we are satisfied.”

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, accompanied Kerlikowske during part of his tour Thursday. Higgins said the Fort Erie inspection effort is a clear success and should be made a permanent program.

In a way, Fort Erie plaza made it all possible, he said.

“I just think this can’t be said enough,” Higgins said. “When you are on the Canadian side and you see what they have done with their plaza, it is logistically functional. It is aesthetically pleasing. And the American side is really an unmitigated disaster.

“Cars are clearing inspection, and they are confronted with trucks that are waiting there. Cars are crisscrossing. It’s really incredible that it functions as well as it does, given the small footprint and the congestion up there.”

The Public Bridge Authority is in the midst of a long-evolving and controversial project to remake the plaza on the U.S. side. In another move that should make local border crossings smoother, 60 new officers will be distributed in 2015 among the four bridges that make up the Port of Buffalo. Those 60 are among 2,000 officers being added nationwide.

Kerlikowske was in his post for just days when he saw in McAllen, Texas, the press of people fleeing gang violence in Central America. Since October, more than 52,000 children – many not accompanied by adults – have tried to enter the country at the southern border, figuring that the assorted risks of the journey are preferable to the dangers faced at home. “What I saw gave me a lot of concerns,” Kerlikowske said of his visit to McAllen. “Border Patrol stations, which are not designed to hold anybody for any length of time, 12 hours maybe, just overflowing at every level, with people sleeping on the floors, a lot of kids with a lot of moms. I described it to people back in Washington as a front-row seat to a humanitarian disaster. And it truly is.”

President Obama wants Congress to appropriate billions of dollars. Until that happens, Customs and Border Protection has scoured its budget for money for food service, laundry and transportation. Other government departments have helped arrange holding facilities.

In July, there was a lull in the number of asylum-seekers, but Kerlikowske speculated that this could be explained as a seasonal trend. The United States began an advertising campaign in Central America to dissuade people from making the journey.

Kerlikowske said he intends to retire as the sun sets on the Obama administration, after the elections in November 2016. He signs up for Medicare this year.

“For me, this a great kind of ending to an enjoyable career,” he said. “… When this is over, and the administration is over, provided the president keeps me on throughout the rest of the administration, I think I will want to do something maybe a little less intense.”