US preclearance expert weighs in about service

MAHO–It was all ears towards United States (US) Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection Area Port Director Dallas, Texas, Cleatus Hunt Jr. who gave a presentation about US Customs and Immigration pre-clearance on Thursday afternoon during the three-day Caribbean Aviation Meetup at Sonesta Maho Beach Resort and Casino.

Caribbean aviation professionals had a chance to hear from the expert who has been involved with the pre-clearance processes for 24 years in the US, which currently operates its pre-clearance at 15 airport locations in six countries. There are more than 600 Clearance Border Patrol (CBP) officers working at these stations.

The US Department of Homeland Security announced in 2016 that it had selected 11 international airports in nine countries, including St. Maarten, for possible expansion of its pre-clearance programme to reduce delays and help passengers make connecting US flights. St. Maarten’s admission to the programme will make it the fourth non-US Caribbean destination with pre-clearance.

The programme allows travellers to undergo Immigration, Customs and agricultural inspection by US Customs before boarding a flight to the United States, rather than on arrival.

The new airports selected to potentially take part are El Dorado International Airport in Bogota, Colombia; Ministro Pistarini International Airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Scotland’s Edinburgh Airport; Keflavik International Airport in Iceland; Mexico City International Airport; Italy’s Milan-Malpensa Airport; Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan; Rio de Janeiro-Galeão International Airport in Brazil; Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport in Italy; São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo, Brazil; and Princess Juliana International Airport SXM in St. Maarten.

Hunt said during his presentation that the pre-clearance for countries that have it has never resulted in a shut-down or removal of the programme. The first pre-clearance destination was in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in 1952.

US pre-clearance is the stationing of CBP officers at foreign airports to conduct Immigration, Customs and agriculture inspections of US-bound travellers prior to boarding their flights. CBP has seen 22 per cent growth in passenger volume in the past five years.

St. Maarten still has a long way to go before pre-clearance becomes a reality. Hunt said that first an agreement should be made between the local airport and the US government; then, an agreement between local Government and the US Government; finally, an agreement between the Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) and local Government with its airport.

St. Maarten has already started initial talks between the governments of the two countries, draft agreements were made up in February this year and parties are still negotiating terms.

Hunt said persons should not underestimate the TSA Equivalent Security Screening process. Pre-cleared passengers will be able to land at US domestic gates and make direct connections to domestic flights without further screening.

Pre-clearance is particularly beneficial to those who have an ongoing connection (such as a connecting flight), as there is no risk of border delays causing them to miss their connection. Air travellers with further connections have their baggage checked through to their destination; without preclearance, the baggage would have to be collected prior to Customs inspection and then re-checked onto the subsequent flight.

When asked about the cost and the process it takes for a country to get pre-clearance, Hunt said it depended on how far the talks are and whether the country had the facilities made to the TSA requirements. He could not call a ballpark figure, as cost varies according to the number of officers the US will send to man the pre-clearance outpost according to the agreement made.

“There is no figure. We look at the requirements of the country and after several discussions, then a number is called and agreed on by all parties,” Hunt said.

He started his career in 1992 with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service and has worked as an Immigration inspector in Canada, Baltimore and the U.S. Virgin Islands. When CBP was created in 2003, Hunt became a CBP officer and worked in Washington DC and Calgary, Alberta, Canada. His previous assignment was CBP Port Director in Phoenix, Arizona, where he led CBP operations at Sky Harbour International Airport, Scottsdale and Phoenix/Mesa Gateway airports.

Hunt holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from State University of New York at Buffalo. He is a recent graduate of the 2013 Department of Homeland Security Fellows Leadership Programme where he received the Derek T. Jensen Memorial award for his professionalism, leadership and selflessness in public service.

Source: The Daily Herald