Wow, this is going to be easy! That’s what I thought when I looked at the Trusted Traveler website. My wife and I were trying to sign up for “Known Traveler” cards and guaranteed TSA Precheck designation, which would help speed passage through airport security and customs lines.
The website encouraged us to sign up and prepay the $100 per person fee, then simply await conditional approval and schedule an interview. In our case that interview had to take place at the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) offices at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
So we signed up and paid our fees. About a week later we got word that we had been conditionally accepted. Now we had to schedule our appointment. Whoops! The soonest availability was some three months out. I guess I had blown past the alert on the website warning that “the extended partial government shutdown has resulted in a substantial backlog” of applications and renewals.
We made our appointments and awaited the big day of our interviews. When it finally came, we trundled off to the airport, fought the usual parking challenges and strode confidently into the CBP office. It wasn’t really an office – just a big empty lobby with locked doors all around.
We joined ten rather unhappy looking people. Most were sitting around looking bored. One was pacing and punching at his cell phone. Another was frantically working a red wall phone mounted near a locked door.
One of the calmer souls kindly told us to have a seat; she pointed to a sheet of paper on the wall that read, “The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is temporarily reducing staff at Global Entry enrollment Centers… Thanks for your patience and understanding.”
It listed weekday hours as 12:00 PM – 4:00 PM. But our appointment had been set for 11:30 AM! The other people also had morning appointments. One woman had been there since 9.
The prospects looked grim. We considered giving up the whole idea and leaving. Then we remembered the $200 we’d paid. New appointments were not being accepted until January. We agreed to wait until noon to see what would happen.
Several of the applicants had already tried knocking on the CBP door – no answer. Some had tried to call various CBP numbers – no answer. But gradually we realized we were all in this together. We began to feel the stirrings of camaraderie.
The next official person we saw would have to deal with all of us – in solidarity!
And so we waited. At 12:08, a lone CBP officer in a black uniform ambled into view, toting a soft drink and a small Igloo cooler. He was immediately set upon by everyone in the room. “What’s going on?” “We had morning appointments. 9. 10. 10:30.”
He declared that he’d accept people with appointments scheduled after noon – but none from the morning, because our appointments had been cancelled, and we should have gotten emails telling us so. “Wait, what??” No one in the room had received any such cancellation notice.
“Can’t help you,” the officer said. He explained that they were short-handed because the bulk of their staff had been “reassigned to our southern border.” But sensing a mounting fury in the room, he agreed to call his supervisor. He said she’d appear later to address our concerns. “Is there a chance we will be seen today?” we asked in unison.
He looked a little bit weary. We got the feeling this scenario had happened before. “Can’t help you, he said as he ducked into the CBP’s secure area, its automatic doors slamming and locking shut behind him.
And so we waited, again. About an hour later, the supervisor walked in. She looked like a supervisor. Sharp uniform, confident but relaxed gait, silver oak leaves on her epaulets. We all jumped up and began pelting her with questions. Calmly, she assured us that she would do everything possible to get all of us processed. Talk about grace under fire.
And she delivered. After 90 minutes, my wife and I, representing the last of the morning’s cancelled appointments, finally found ourselves sitting across the desk from the supervisor. She took our pictures and fingerprints, all the while making us feel comfortable with friendly small talk. She asked about our planned travels and patiently explained how the Known Traveler system works.
She’s been with CBP since 1997. And she’s seen it all. During the last government shutdown, her officers were required to work without pay, putting a strain on their everyday lives. And they’re currently working with short staff because so many officers are being deployed to the Mexican border. Consider too, how the reputation the of CBP has suffered for the handling of migrants at the southern border. No wonder these folks are stressed.
Even though she had to deal with frustrated and unhappy people day in and day out, this supervisor kept her cool. She got everyone processed and on their way, even though it took four hours. Despite the delay and stress, we were reminded that in even the worst of circumstances, a little kindness and respect go a long way.
[Lori Kesler contributed to this post.]