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Schumer demands staffing report as border agents return from southwest

Sen. Charles E. Schumer Thursday demanded that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security immediately release its overdue report to Congress on Customs and Border Protection staffing at northern ports of entry, even as some officers return from duty in the southwest.

In a letter to acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan, Schumer reacted one day after The Buffalo News reported that the transfer of significant numbers of customs officers to the Mexican border for the onslaught of Central American asylum-seekers resulted in local staffing shortages and sporadic backups on the region’s four international bridges.

On Thursday, the senator noted that DHS failed to meet an Aug. 1 deadline for a report on the effects of the transfers on the northern border.

“This report is of great interest to many border communities in New York and across the nation which do not wish to see commerce interrupted by increased wait times, or their security threatened by the lack of adequate staffing,” Schumer wrote. “By diverting CBP officers assigned to northern border to the southern border, CBP has created potential staffing shortages that could be a disincentive for tourists seeking to cross the border at a critical time. In order to fully understand the scope of this problem, Congress and the public must have access to this report.

“Failure to provide it complicates Congress’s ability to conduct oversight for and take action on behalf of our northern border communities,” he added. “Any further delays would be unacceptable.”

Federal officials late Wednesday reported their initial response to reports of delays on the Niagara River crossings. A CBP official noted that the agency over the past several months reassigned 731 officers nationwide to support the Border Patrol along the southwest border, “where apprehensions of family units and unaccompanied children from Central America had overwhelmed Border Patrol capabilities and facilities.”

“As of August 4 however, CBP has now reduced the previous 731 CBP officers deployed to 400 CBP officers,” the CBP official said. “The impact of this reduction will be felt across the nation as the returning CBP officers will be equitably distributed back to their home ports of entry.”

CBP acknowledges some backups are occurring from Canada to the United States as the agency tries to juggle a diminished local staff. When extra personnel may be assigned to handle weekend and holiday volumes, they say, weekday shifts could prove thin and cause delays.

Aaron Bowker, customs’ chief officer for field operations at Buffalo, said earlier this week that his agency has realized all along that the dozens of officers transferred to the U.S.-Mexico border from across upstate New York to handle the onslaught of asylum-seekers would cause problems.

“We’re trying to minimize that effect as much as possible,” he said. “But as a result, you might see delays of 20 to 30 minutes during the week that you would not see normally. The reason is we are not going to take away resources from our enforcement mission.”

The delays also result, Bowker said, from customs managers beefing up inspections staff during peak weekend and holiday periods by borrowing from the slower, weekday shifts. The Lewiston-Queenston Bridge reported a 50-minute delay on Monday.

But he also explained that CBP places primary emphasis on interdicting drugs, smuggled goods and people at the border. With more illegal activity, more personnel could be shifted from inspection to enforcement. He pointed to Ontario’s legalization of marijuana as an example, as more U.S. citizens bring the drug home, causing a “drastic increase” in seizures at all New York State crossings from Canada.

But no one knows how the government will address the local situation because Homeland Security has missed an Aug. 1 report deadline set by Congress. Lawmakers required DHS to indicate by then the number of officers temporarily assigned to the southwest border in response to unprecedented volumes of asylum-seekers; how long officers will be away from northern border assignments; northern border ports affected; and resulting effects.

DHS did not return requests from The News on Tuesday or again on Thursday seeking information about the effects and missed deadline.

The News reported in May that 37 officers were transferred from the Buffalo field office – which covers all of upstate – for 60-day temporary assignments, followed by another 49, some of whom would replace those already sent to the southern border.

In his letter to McAleenan, Schumer noted the importance of a fully staffed customs operation to cross border trade, tourism and security, with over $400 billion in gross domestic product generated in the Buffalo Niagara region every year, with similar impacts in the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain crossings.

"The Peace Bridge alone accounts for nearly five million vehicular crossings per year, and over two million Canadian visitors traverse the Rouses Point crossing and the Thousand Islands, Ogdensburg-Prescott, Massena-Cornwall International bridges combined each year, providing a significant boost to New York’s economy," Schumer wrote. "By diverting CBP officers assigned to northern border to the southern border, CBP has created potential staffing shortages that could be a disincentive for tourists seeking to cross the border at a critical time.

"In order to fully understand the scope of this problem, Congress and the public must have access to this report," he added.

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