Why Are Customs Lines So Long At U.S. Airports?

Delta CEO Richard Anderson made news on Wednesday when he vented about U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) alleged inability to quickly screen passengers coming off of international flights at major U.S. airports.

“I must say I think it’s an embarrassment for our government that as much as we as an industry pay into Customs And Border Patrol that we have issues at not just JFK but at Newark, at Chicago, at Los Angeles where we cannot seem to get our government to perform a very basic service,” he told Airline analyst Helane Becker of Cowen and Co, according to a story in the Dallas Morning News.

I don’t disagree with Anderson. In fact, I wrote a piece venting about the fact that I waited 90 minutes to clear customs in Houston in February. But as a former Foreign Service Officer who has interviewed thousands of foreign nationals applying for U.S. visas and once spent a day alongside a CBP officer working at JFK, I can offer a little more context as to why the lines are so long, other than the obvious fact that there aren’t enough CPB officers to control the crowds.Most U.S. airports have two lines: one for U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents (LPR’s or green card holders) and another for foreign nationals. Interviews with American citizens are nearly always perfunctory but screening LPR’s can take longer. Many Americans don’t realize that green card holders can lose their legal status if they remain outside the U.S. for more than a year unless they can prove extenuating circumstances.

Because we don’t typically stamp travelers on their way out of the country, it can be time consuming for CBP officers to verify how long legal residents were outside the country. Also, many LPR’s don’t speak English, which can slow down the screening process. If we want to speed up the screening process for Americans returning home, the easiest way to do so would be to have LPR’s use the line for foreign nationals. They would hate that solution but if they aren’t U.S. citizens, technically, they are foreign nationals.

Obviously it would be preferable to simply increase CBP staffing, but with government coffers stretched thin across the board, this option seems unlikely. Why are the lines to screen foreign nationals so long? In short, because CBP officers face a very difficult task.

They have just a couple minutes to try to ascertain if the individual standing before them intends to abide by U.S. laws or not. Often times, these travelers speak no English — and most officers can also speak a second language, usually Spanish, but travelers come to the U.S. from every corner of the globe. They have a tough, thankless job and some are better than others at being friendly and welcoming.