Miami Int'l Airport has Nation's Slowest Immigration-Control Lines

'Welcome to the U.S.'-- now wait.

Miami International Airport has the nation's slowest immigration-control lines, leading to passengers sometimes waiting for hours before they are allowed to enter the United States, a congressional agency says.

On average, immigration inspectors at MIA took about 50 minutes to process a planeload of international travelers, compared to an average of 30 to 40 minutes at other surveyed airports around the country, the report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said. The report is based on statistical samples taken between Jan. 10 and March 31 at the 20 U.S. airports that have the largest numbers of international travelers.

In some cases, the 39-page report said, passengers had to wait hours to be processed at MIA and some other airports after getting off planes that already had taken hours to fly to Miami from Europe or South America.

Passengers had to wait as long as five hours at a single airport before being processed, the report said, though it did not identify the airport.

GAO investigators said wait times were long or short depending on whether passenger volume was high, whether there were enough passport control booths and whether they were fully staffed.

The GAO did not cite a specific reason why MIA had the longest wait times in the January-March sample. But other immigration statistics offer a possible explanation.

Figures compiled separately by the Department of Homeland Security show that MIA is the busiest international airport in the country in terms of foreign-traveler volume.

Large Crowds

In fiscal year 2004, MIA handled more than 3.8 million foreign travelers -- the largest number among 14 selected ports of entry included in Homeland Security's statistical yearbook.

Officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees passport control at MIA and other ports of entry, acknowledged the delays but noted that the agency is working toward reducing wait times.

''We are aware of the issue,'' said Zachary Mann, a CBP spokesman in Miami. ''We are looking into ways of addressing it with our partners at MIA. But, more important, the traveling public must realize that our primary mission is to prevent terrorists or other criminals -- and contraband -- from entering into the United States, and this may result in delays from time to time.''

William Talbert, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, said MIA delays have been an issue for more than two decades and that if immigration authorities don't correct the problem it eventually could drive visitors to other airports.

''That whole issue has been a thorny one for MIA for 25 years,'' Talbert said. ''It gets better, then it gets bad. The good news is that we got a lot of customers. The bad news is that it takes awhile to process them. It has the potential of driving people away from Miami because they have other choices.''

The GAO report said that one way Customs and Border Protection is trying to reduce wait times is by increasing the number of immigration officers.

Before, After 9/11

Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, immigration officers at passport control were required to process a planeload within 45 minutes. At the time, immigration inspectors generally processed each traveler in about 60 seconds.

But post-9/11 congressional actions deleted the 45-minute requirement.

New Measures

Homeland Security introduced new measures that lengthened processing time, including fingerprinting and photographing many foreign travelers.

Customs and Border Protection, the GAO report says, calculates passenger wait time at passport control as the time required to process 98 percent of passengers on an aircraft through what is known as primary inspection.

The report noted that the average 45-minute wait time does not mean that the whole planeload will be cleared in 45 minutes. It means that the first passenger to arrive at passport control may be processed in less than 10 minutes while the last two percent of the passengers may wait more than an hour.

A graphic included in the report showed that of the 20 airports surveyed by GAO auditors, MIA had the longest average wait time: about 50 minutes, compared to about 40 minutes for Honolulu and under 40 minutes for others including New York City's JFK, San Francisco, Orlando, Atlanta and Washington D.C.'s Dulles. Another graphic showed that MIA was the only airport of the 20 surveyed where about 20 percent of international flights exceeded a wait time of 60 minutes.

Shortest Wait Times

Three airports had the shortest wait time, about 20 minutes: Phoenix, San Juan and Baltimore-Washington.

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport was not included in the GAO survey and is also not included in the annual immigration service statistical yearbook because it does not have the volume of international travelers Miami and other major international airports have.

Orlando, included in the GAO survey, had an average wait time of under 40 minutes. In fiscal year 2004, Orlando handled 642,874 foreign travelers with visitor or other non-immigrant visas.