WASHINGTON – Ten additional customs officers from the Buffalo area will head to the southern border this Sunday for 60-day tours of duty to help federal officials cope with the influx of asylum-seekers there, sources with knowledge of the plan said Thursday.
The move brings the total number of local customs officers transferred southward to 17. It's unclear whether those officers worked at one of the border crossings into Canada or at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced the additional transfers in an internal memo The Buffalo News obtained. The memo said 19 officers in total from upstate New York will be making the move, but sources said that number was later reduced to 17.
This brings the total number of transferred upstate customs officers to 37, which includes 20 officers from the rest of upstate New York – the North Country border crossings and all the airports north of metro New York City.
The latest move comes a week and a half after sources told The News that about 30 customs officers from upstate would be transferred to the southern border. It comes amid an increasing outcry over the moves, which some members of Congress fear could lead to backups at border crossings during the busy summer travel season.
The 17 customs officers from upstate New York who will head south are part of a contingent of 186 officers nationwide who will be transferred to border operations based in Del Rio and Laredo, Texas.
The agency will first seek volunteers to make the move, but then will reassign personnel southward based on seniority, with the least experienced chosen to go first. The memo said officers will not be allowed to go on leave during the 60-day temporary assignment.
The customs memo portrays the move as a necessity. The customs officers will help border patrol agents "in streamlining operations, protecting the health and safety of in-custody aliens, and managing overcrowding at their temporary holding facilities," the memo said.
Members of the House Northern Border Caucus are not thrilled with the move.
Thirteen members of that caucus – which Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, co-chairs with Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican from Willsboro – this week wrote to Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security, to object to the plan.
"We are approaching the heaviest travel months of the year and ports of entry will be facing increased volume," wrote the caucus members, including Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican. "The decision to deploy northern border CBP officers to the southern border makes it increasingly more difficult for the agency to meet their core mission requirements at the border, which include effectively security U.S. points of entry and safeguarding and streamlining lawful trade and travel."
Meantime, the union that represents customs agents and its allies suggested an alternative long-term solution: hiring more customs agents.
The National Treasury Employees Union and 16 other organizations sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to back legislation that would allow the customs agency to add another 600 officers annually.
"While the volume of commerce crossing our borders has more than tripled in the past 25 years, CBP staffing has not kept pace with demand," the union and its allies wrote. "Long wait times at our ports-of-entry lead to travel delays and uncertainty, which can increase supply-chain costs and cause passengers to miss their connections."
Organizations signing the letter included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Airports Council International, the American Association of Port Authorities, the New York Shipping Association, the Border Trade Alliance and the U.S. Travel Association.