A tale of two agencies

By Arlene Violet
Posted 2/26/20

A few days ago I landed at the Fort Lauderdale airport after being out of this country. I try to view my return with the fresh eyes of a newly arrived person in order to access what image the United …

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A tale of two agencies


A few days ago I landed at the Fort Lauderdale airport after being out of this country. I try to view my return with the fresh eyes of a newly arrived person in order to access what image the United States projects to those coming here. I saw the very best professionalism by the staff of TSA. Their competence was outstanding. At the very same airport, however, I saw the worst performance of any federal agency, i.e. Customs, with which I have ever had to interact.

There were at least 500 people waiting in line at 5 p.m. to go through Customs. There were 27 Declaration Form machines available, far too few for the crowd. After about an hour wait (I was the 35th person in line) I saw why.  At least ½ of the machines were not being used. Four Customs agents were gabbing with each other for 20 minutes  and would not let anyone proceed to the vacant machines. Many of the folks in the line were making pleas to move the line along since they had connecting flights. Mind you, the connections were 2 hours plus away but the time was ticking away because of the lack of flow. After 80 minutes I went to the machine and did my form in 30 seconds. I then turned the corner and ground to a halt. Of 18 terminals available only 6 Customs personnel were manning the stations, with one of the kiosks only serving the airplane crews. By then, folks were beside themselves. Children were fidgeting from the long wait, and eventually dozens of them burst into tears, with distraught parents worrying about making the next leg of the trip.

In Boston, when a United States citizen goes through Customs, the agents routinely welcome them back home, a touch I like very much. In this place, however, surliness  greeted everybody. One of my traveling companions was in a wheelchair and had to endure the same treatment at another section of the airport while 3 out of 3 declaration machines weren’t being used for an hour. 

After my friend claimed her baggage with help from another passenger I caught up with her. I wheeled her through long lines of folks trying to complete the last phase of checks. Only 2 customs officers were processing the long lines. What should have been about a ½ hour exercise as it is in Boston with similar backlogs this experience was 2 hours on average.

It was not a pretty picture seeing what was an unnecessary hardship imposed on families. I was concerned about those newly visiting this country since the first impression was one of not only disorganization but also of a “don’t bother me” mentality.
I couldn’t help think about whatever happened to folks who have public jobs and who somehow have forgotten that they are public servants.  They are representatives of this country. 

It is great to be home again. I always miss this country and Little Rhody when I am away. Hopefully, the Customs department in that airport will get its act together. I’m sending this column to them. I wonder what will happen when I next present myself there next February.  Hopefully I won’t be celebrating my August birthday before they let me through!

Arlene Violet is an attorney and former Rhode Island Attorney General.

Arlene Violet

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.