CBP Officers Show Resilience, Compassion and Innovation
CBP officers at Orlando-Sanford International Airport faced a seemingly insurmountable challenge, and did it with a smile and perhaps a few tears, too.
Nearly 300 orphans at various stages of the adoption process evacuated from earthquake-ridden Haiti and arrived there during a hectic eight-day period. CBP showed a little ingenuity and compassion to ease the transition and stress on orphans and adoptive parents, developed administrative efficiencies that enhanced interagency processing, and transformed their international arrivals area into perhaps CBP's first 'romper room.'
"I am extremely proud of the work our officers have done and their professionalism," said Carlos Maglione, port director, Port Canaveral, Fla.
The 7.0 magnitude earthquake on January 12 was one of the most devastating to strike the Western Hemisphere. It also expedited the adoption process for hundreds of orphaned Haitian children. Due to the exigent circumstance surrounding these evacuations, the orphans arrived to Orlando Sanford without passports or legal documents
to enter the U.S.
Additionally, whatever adoption paperwork the children did possess was all lumped together.
According to Jennifer Schroeder-Fawcett, supervisory CBP officer at Orlando International Airport, adoption agency personnel in their haste to evacuate Haiti sometimes presented officers with an avalanche of documents strewn together in Tupperware bins.
CBP officers devised a process to not only admit the orphans and issue humanitarian paroles, but to develop A-file packets. A-files are created on intending immigrants and adverse actions on foreign nationals.
CBP also officers worked with Dept. of Health and Human Services officials to collate the jumbled pile of documents by child, and further separated these files by each orphan's adoption status category.
Even adoption agency officials played an invaluable role helping to sift through the documentation to separate each child, Maglione said.
This process allowed HHS to quickly evaluate the documentation and render decisions regarding sponsorship by prospective adoptive parents.
"We had to adapt on the fly and come up with a system. We had to create a process that (previously) didn't exist," said Ryan Hutton, supervisory CBPO, Cincinnatti Airport.
"It was a paradigm of teamwork. Everyone jumped in to help, everyone took a role. Everyone did all they had to do to get the job done," Hutton added.
These roles included non-traditional duties that you won't find on any CBPO job description, including caring for kids - up to 100 at a time - in a makeshift daycare area assembled in the Federal Inspection Station.
"You would see big brawny officers out there holding these kids. Officers were babysitting the kids, changing diapers," said Schroeder-Fawcett, the Orlando supervisory CBPO.
Other agencies assisted as well.
The American Red Cross provided volunteers to help watch the kids, manage food, diapers and blankets distribution, and Disney movies for the kids to watch.
Seminole County, Fla., Emergency Management officials provided emergency medical care as it was needed. One child was so dehydrated that he required an on-site intravenous infusion.
Language, because Haitians primarily speak Creole and French and their documentation is mostly written in French, also played a temporary challenge, but one that resourceful CBP officers were able to quickly overcome.
Enter two officers from Northern border ports of entry.
Michel Pariseau, port director, Norton, Vt., and Scott Cyr, supervisory CBPO, Port of Madawaska, Maine, are both temporarily deployed to Operation Safe Return. They said their French language skills are an essential tool at their ports near the Canadian province of Quebec because Quebecois French is widely spoken in towns on the U.S. side of the border.
Their skills were essential in Orlando as well.
"We translated adoption documents from French," Cyr said. When dealing with the passengers, Cyr found that the people would respond well to key words and phrases. Cyr said he felt great that his language ability contributed to the operation.
"It really is a major team effort," Pariseau said, noting that the French speakers and Creole speakers would alternate on addressing the passengers on the military flights via loudspeaker, advising them to get their documents ready.
Pariseau noted that he and Cyr were looking for key documents written in French, such as an adoption decree or other document showing the child had been legally given up to the orphanage. Normally these documents would already have been translated from French to English but the earthquake sped up the process.
"Many of the prospective adoptive parents would have been several months or several years from being finished with the adoption process if it wasn't for the earthquake," Pariseau said.
As of January 27, CBP officers at Orlando Sanford have processed 60 percent of the 482 total orphans evacuated from Haiti to various U.S. ports of entry. After interacting and bonding with some of the orphans, many officers freely admitted that the A-files that were now filling boxes in the command center weren't just paper.
"These aren't files. These are people and stories we remember," Schroeder-Fawcett said.
Officers agreed that the best part of the job for many of them was to watch the unifications between once-orphaned Haitian children and their adoptive American parents.
"One of the most rewarding things in my career is when we can turn over kids to their adoptive parents," Hutton said. "Just to see that look of joy on their faces."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the unified border agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with the management, control and protection of our nation's borders at and between the official ports of entry. CBP is charged with keeping terrorists and terrorist weapons out of the country while enforcing hundreds of U.S. laws.