If you're planning to go abroad this summer, you may want to allow time for some unexpected delays on re-entering the United States.
As the peak summer vacation season approaches, travel industry spokesmen warn that international travelers may experience a repeat of last year's problems in trying to come back into the country -- even if they're U.S. citizens and have nothing to declare.
The problem this time is a continuing shortage of Immigration and Naturalization Service agents. Last summer, the INS had only 1,225 agents to process returning citizens and foreign visitors. There should be 1,875 on duty by September, but currently only 1,675 are in place.
Moreover, unlike previous years, the INS isn't allowing U.S. citizens to skip INS inspection and go straight to the Customs counters -- a practice that has helped ease the bottleneck in the past.
Partly because of security concerns, the INS has eliminated this "citizen bypass" program. Immigration authorities will allow some returning citizens to get by without a formal computer check, but they still plan to examine the papers of every returnee.
The changes are causing apprehension. Richard Norton, director the Air Transport Association of America, an airline trade group, warns that there will be "major delays . . . within several weeks" if the INS doesn't move more quickly to fill the gap.
Mr. Norton is worried that continued delays might crimp the booming U.S. tourist market. "When people see impediments put in place, they simply go elsewhere," he warns. "The United States has the reputation of the worst of all places to visit from an entry standpoint."
The impact already is visible. New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, the No. 1 port of entry into the United States, already is experiencing delays, says Ed O'Connor, manager of government affairs for aviation for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
With the new funding authorization, Kennedy is scheduled to receive 88 new INS agents but so far only 23 of them have begun working. Compounding the problem is the inadequate size of the processing hall for new arrivals there.
As a result, lines holding people waiting to see an agent snake out of the hall and into airport corridors. Other passengers are held on airplanes until there is room for them to wait in the terminal.
Critics say the INS has no excuse for not having put additional agents in place by now. Following the long waits of last summer, President Bush approved a $5 surcharge on returnees from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. The money was to pay for additional inspection agents.