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Vital Preclearance Operations Continue During COVID-19 Pandemic

An officer with a traveler at a Preclearance facility
Vital Preclearance Operations Continue During COVID-19 Pandemic
By Melissa Copeland

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and agriculture specialists continue to ensure national security through the COVID-19 pandemic by increasing the use of Personal Protective Equipment. Photo by Glenn Fawcett


International air and sea travel have been hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, officers from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations, Preclearance Field Office, seamlessly continue frontline operations at 16 Preclearance ports of entries in Canada, Ireland, the United Arab Emirates, Bermuda, the Bahamas and Aruba.

The more than 600 Preclearance officers and agriculture specialists are no stranger to adapting to unexpected crises at an international level.

Health pandemics such as H1N1 and the Swine Flu, and natural disasters like hurricanes, have all impacted international travel operations requiring adaptation and resilience on the part of CBP officers and leadership.

The ability to communicate and collaborate during a pandemic or natural disaster has proven to be critical to mission success.


VTC Keeps Preclearance Negotiations on Track

CBP officers with travelers at a Preclearance facility
Preclearance officers and agriculture specialists continue working
around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic by wearing the
proper Personal Protective Equipment while conducting operations.
CBP photo

Continuing negotiations to add Preclearance locations has required a creative and proactive solution.

Increasing the use of video teleconferencing has allowed the Preclearance Field Office to successfully navigate the COVID-19 travel restrictions and social distancing protocols.

“VTCs have enabled the continuation of negotiations,” said Matthew Suarez, OFO Assistant Director for Border Security. “We haven’t lost our steam in that regards. Nothing beats that one-on-one interaction, but we haven’t lost our momentum and drive.”

As travel resumes, the Preclearance program boasts significant incentives for both air carriers and airports that may increase their competiveness.

Air carriers may be able to fly direct to more U.S. destinations, use domestic terminals and gates and increase connections.

Airports that incorporate Preclearance can expand route options and keep the airport competitive based on transfer times—a key concern for travelers, as continued social distancing remains a key component in the reopening phases.

In fiscal year 2019, CBP Preclearance locations processed over 22 million passengers destined for the United States. That equates to about 16% of all international passengers, according to Preclearance Director of Field Operations Clint Lamm.

A key component to CBP’s extended border strategy, Preclearance has denied entry to more than 9,000 inadmissible individuals—addressing international threats at the earliest possible opportunity.

Additionally, the Preclearance Field Office has seized $4,887,383 in undeclared currency.

“We are in a valuable position to leverage partnerships that we can build by being in these foreign countries to exchange data that’s critical to enforcement,” said Suarez.

As the nation prepares to engage in a phased reintegration, preclearance patrons can continue to expect customs, agriculture and immigration inspection clearances to be completed before a passenger even arrives at the gate to board an aircraft or ship destined for the United States.

At eight Canadian Preclearance locations, CBP officers also helped facilitate 250,000 new enrollments into the Global Entry program. Global Entry is a CBP program within the Trusted Traveler Network of expedited screening programs at various airports and land borders.

Preclearance lessens passenger burden and time requirements, treating the cleared individual and their belongings as domestic travelers once arriving in the United States—drastically cutting down the connection times.

“Typically they don’t have to get screened again by TSA, because any flight that is precleared is also certified by TSA to be cleared for aviation security screening purposes in the United States,” said Lamm.

Continuing negotiations via VTC to link international airport partners to national security programs like Preclearance keeps passengers safe, and air carriers and airports running efficiently resulting in a mutually beneficial partnership for all.

“The way we do business at our ports of entry is going to be different,” Lamm said. “We are changing the way we handle passenger processing. We are going to be moving toward more biometrics and touchless inspection technologies, and providing more personal protective equipment and protective procedures at the ports.”


CBP officers inspecting an aircraft
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Preclearance officers and agriculture specialists don the proper Personal Protective Equipment during the COVID-19 global pandemic to ensure the health and safety of all travelers and CBP personnel. CBP photo


Using VTC to Keep Teams United

A major challenge to the evolving dynamic of today’s workforce is that teammates may no longer be collocated in the same office, but thousands of miles away.

“Virtual platforms have allowed us to communicate more with the employees, and have been a huge benefit to the Preclearance Field Office,” said Kelly Pentin, Chief of Staff for the Preclearance Field Office.

Connecting virtually has increased the opportunity for employees to participate in a variety of events that are traditionally held in an in-person setting.

“We are now able to have diversity events, and we have had a number of them, in one location that are video teleconferenced across the entire field office,” said Lamm. “For National Arab American Heritage Month, we had every port and the field office participate—in one event, with one guest speaker, over 12 time zones—again, something that was never able to be completed before.”

The Preclearance Field Office has also ensured the flow of communication is a two-way street and employees have a way to engage directly with leadership.

“Not only did we use VTC for our Port Director Leadership Summit, we’ve also held many town halls with our employees worldwide. The Director of Field Operations hosted town halls in which over 300 employees attended,” said Pentin.

Keeping employees and leaders virtually connected during a global pandemic like COVID-19 results in continued leadership and employee development, and has been essential to international negotiations on expansion.

“We know that Preclearance will be part of the recovery of the international air travel industry and for the airlines,” said Lamm.


A CBP officer talks with a traveler
More than 600 Preclearance officers and agriculture specialists continue operations during COVID-19 at more than 16 ports of entries in Canada, Ireland, the United Arab Emirates, Bermuda, the Bahamas and Aruba. CBP photo


Engaging Leaders via VTC

In May, 45 leaders from the Preclearance Field Office and Preclearance locations participated in the biannual Port Director Summit. This year’s summit was the first ever held via video teleconferencing.

The theme of the Port Director Summit was “Collaboration, Trust, Vision” and over the course of two and a half days, leaders conducted operations planning and leadership development.

Executive Assistant Commissioner Todd Owen led a spirited Q&A session covering topics ranging from the seemingly “new normal” of managing more frequent natural disasters, to the OFO enforcement posture and budget projections for fiscal year 2021.

He also outlined his expectations for ports preparing to modify processing facilities and procedures to resume travel operations.

Owen encouraged attendees to, “look out for your people, and be straight and honest with everyone.”

“Our team was able to make a great pitcher of lemonade from the lemons we were handed,” said Lamm. “The pandemic has forced the need to conduct business differently, and risk taking with more innovative ideas will be necessary for the future of CBP and supporting our nation’s recovery.”


During the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and agriculture specialists ensure safe operations with the increased use of Personal Protective Equipment. Photo by Mani Albrecht

A CBP officer talks with a traveler