Schumer, Higgins push plan to set minimum staffing requirement at northern border

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Chuck Schumer

FILE – In this Aug. 1, 2019 file photo, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., talks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington. The Senate’s top Democrat intends to force a vote on blocking President Donald Trump from using special emergency powers to transfer money from military base construction projects like new schools to pay for new fences along the U.S.-Mexico border. That’s according to prepared remarks Tuesday by Sen. Chuck Schumer, who says the vote would give lawmakers a chance to block Trump “from stealing military funding from their states to foot the bill for an expensive and ineffective wall.” (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Standing at the Peace Bridge, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and U.S. Representative Brian Higgins (NY-26) today launched a major push to pass their legislation, the BOUND (Border Officer Utilization for National Defense) Act, which would set a minimum staffing requirement for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers stationed at northern border ports of entry (POE). The legislation, sponsored by Schumer and Higgins, will be introduced in Congress next week and is cosponsored by Senators Leahy, Gillibrand and Shaheen. Their push comes in the wake of the administration and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) executing a plan to transfer as many as 300 CBP customs officers from the northern border to the southern border. This transfer and subsequent staffing shortage caused significant delays at border crossings such as the Peace Bridge, jeopardized cross-border trade, and created security vulnerabilities. Schumer and Higgins said that even though DHS has since moved many of the transferred officers back to their home stations in Western New York, preventing staffing shortages at the northern border in the future is absolutely critical for the economic well-being of the region. Therefore, Schumer and Higgins called on Congress to expediently consider and pass the BOUND Act, to ensure the northern border is fully and permanently staffed.

“Sacrificing customs operations at and the security of the northern border for the sake of the southern border equated to nothing more than robbing Peter to pay Paul, and we must do everything possible to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Not only did this misguided plan create obnoxious and lengthy wait times at northern border crossings, but it jeopardized vital tourism revenue and created grave security risks,” said Senator Schumer. “That’s why today, standing with Representative Higgins, I’m proud to announce the forthcoming introduction of the BOUND Act, which would set a minimum customs staffing requirement at the northern border. With billions in cross-border trade at stake and narcotics traffickers constantly seeking vulnerabilities, Western New York cannot afford a short-changed northern border.”

Congressman Higgins said, “The Western New York and Southern Ontario economies are interconnected. We cross the border to enjoy professional sports teams, travel out of one another’s airports and go back and forth for tourism activities including retail and restaurants. There is great opportunity for economic growth with Ontario’s population projected to increase by almost 4.3 million over the next 24 years. The decision to deploy northern border CBP officers to the southern border is impacting morale and adding further stress to the job of safeguarding and streamlining lawful trade and travel. Senator Schumer and I are working to ensure necessary and predictable staffing levels to facilitate the secure flow of goods and traffic between the US and Canada.”

This April, DHS began transferring northern border customs officers to the southern border. While true that many of the transferred officers have since returned to Western New York, Schumer and Higgins explained that the incident highlighted the critical importance of smooth customs operations at U.S.-Canadian border crossings. During the staffing shortage, news reports revealed that massive backups were occurring at Western New York border crossings. Last month, drivers attempting to cross the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge waited for as many as 50 minutes in heavy traffic. Similar delays were also reported at the Peace Bridge, the second busiest crossing between the U.S. and Canada with more than 5.3 million car truck and bus crossings in 2017, and Rainbow Bridge. Schumer and Higgins argued that beyond being an inconvenience, the delays and overworked customs staff create both economic and security issues.

The officials said that long waits at northern border crossings could have a significant impact on cross-border trade, which is critical to the economic prosperity of Western New York. The Buffalo-Niagara Region is home to more than a million people and its crossings generate over $400 billion in gross domestic product for both the U.S. and Canada. In total, northern POE facilitate an estimated $1.6 billion in the cross-border trade of goods daily, which is the very lifeblood of border communities’ economies, including those in Western New York. Many companies in the region are dependent on these crossings, which greatly impact their bottom line, and require fast and professional processing in order to meet the needs of their customers and workers. In total, more than three million people use Western New York border crossings annually and spend in excess of $900 million during their visits. Schumer and Higgins explained that with such needed business at stake, the northern border must have sufficient customs staffing levels.

Additionally, a 2017 assessment from DHS on northern POE warned that potential homegrown violent extremists in Canada, who are not included in the federal government’s consolidated terrorist watch list, could therefore enter the U.S. legally at northern POE. Schumer and Higgins said that responding to this serious national security threat requires that northern CBP field offices are able to operate at maximum capacity. Furthermore, international narcotics traffickers have long sought to exploit vulnerabilities at northern POE in order to import dangerous opioids and other drugs, which can find their way to Western New York. The representatives argued that having overworked northern border customs officers and insufficient staffing numbers could lead to greater amounts of these narcotics slipping through the cracks and reaching Western New York.

Schumer and Higgins explained that even though the summer travel season has finished, securing fully-staffed and fully-functioning northern border customs operations is particularly pressing as the busy fall season gets underway. Today, September 5, marks the beginning of the National Football League (NFL) season, with the Buffalo Bills set to play their first home game on September 22. Considering that roughly 20% of the fans in attendance at any given Bills game come from Canada, these events put a major strain on northern border crossings. Similarly, the National Hockey League (NHL) season is set to begin in the coming months. Hockey is Canada’s national sport, and for many residents of Ontario, Buffalo is the nearest NHL city. Because of this, and their affordability, many Canadians travel to Buffalo during the winter and spring to attend Buffalo Sabres games, putting even more stress on northern border crossings. Schumer and Higgins said that staff shortcomings at northern border crossings, in tandem with these frequent high-stress events, could run the risk of causing even longer wait times.

Specifically, Schumer and Higgins’ BOUND Act would, first, ensure that no fewer than the highest number of CBP officers stationed at the northern border between the dates of January 1, 2016 and the enactment of the bill, are ever stationed at the northern border. And, second, the legislation would prevent CBP from transferring any personnel away from assignments on the northern border, if it would mean reducing the total northern staffing below the maximum level between January 1, 2016 and the enactment of the bill.

Schumer and Higgins have long fought to maintain customs staffing levels at the northern border. In April, Higgins wrote to the DHS Secretary objecting to the Administration’s plan to relocate CBP officers stationed on the US/Canadian border to serve along the southern Border.  In May, Schumer called on CBP to maintain a minimum staffing level of 3,600 customs officers on the U.S.-Canada border, in accordance with the “Northern Border Strategy” issued by DHS in 2017. The same month Higgins, who serves as co-chair of the House Northern Border Caucus led a bipartisan letter pressing DHS to rescind transfers and preserve strong staffing levels at the northern border.  Following this, Schumer fought to pass a provision in the Emergency Border Supplemental Appropriations for Humanitarian Assistance and Security at the Southern Border Act of 2019, requiring the Secretary of Homeland Security to issue a report to Congress by August 1, 2019 on the number of CBP officers assigned to northern ports of entry that had since been transferred to southern ports of entry. On August 8, days after its due date, Schumer wrote to DHS calling on the agency to release its overdue report immediately. And Higgins spoke directly with the CBP Acting Commissioner, stressing the importance of adequate northern border staffing, during the Acting Commissioner’s visit to Buffalo on August 21.

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