SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Rob Barnett is a lawyer at a San Antonio firm that specializes in immigration visas for Mexican businessmen. He travels to Mexico at least once a month, and he’s used to facing a long wait clearing immigration when he returns.
Then he saw how Global Entry works and his jaw dropped.
“I would be stuck in a very long line to get through immigration and they breezed by, touched the screen and were gone while I waited in line,” Barnett said.
That was at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental airport. It’s one of 25 airports across the country that participate in Global Entry, a little-known program rolled out by the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, on a test basis in 2008 but made permanent this year.
Under the program, international frequent flyers bypass immigration inspectors and check in at automatic kiosks, much like ATMs. It’s like fast-track lanes at Mexican and Canadian land border crossings. So far, 300,000 travelers have enrolled.
For DHS, it’s a benefit because it helps weed out potential terrorists.
“This gives us a good demonstrated low-risk group of travelers and then the government can redirect our resources to people we know less about,” said John Wagner, executive director for admissibility and passenger programs at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the DHS agency that maintains immigration checkpoints at U.S. airports.
Any U.S. citizen or permanent resident (“green card” holders) as well as people from Mexico and Canada, can apply. Germany, United Kingdom Holland and Qatar are also in the club — and Panama and South Korea are next as agreements are finalized.
Applicants go through interviews and criminal background checks.
“When they come off the plane, they go right to the kiosk, so they do not get in line. The kiosk will read their passport. It will prompt them to put their four fingerprints onto a fingerprint reader,” Wagner explained.
“You’ll do your customs declaration via the touch screen. It will then run a series of background checks and then it will print out a receipt. So the total time at the kiosk takes about 40 seconds and then you’ll proceed right out,” he added.
The most active Global Entry hubs so far are big airports like JFK in New York City, Houston and Atlanta. Phoenix and Las Vegas are among the most recent additions.
But San Antonio, a growing hub for Mexican tourists and businessmen, also wants in.
“We want a piece of the action. We want that market of international travelers to come to San Antonio,” said Marco Barros, president and CEO of the San Antonio Tourism Council.
Barros has led the charge to get Global Entry in the Alamo City. San Antonio International Airport is not one of the country’s largest, but it had a 33 percent increase in international passengers last year — primarily from Mexico.
And it’s now served by four Mexican airlines, up from one a year ago. City leaders argue it’s all more than enough reason to have Global Entry here. Eduardo Bravo, chairman of the board of the 500-member Mexican Businessmen Association, said many of his colleagues are eager to sign up.
“They have to travel almost every week to Mexico. It’s a big challenge. And if we have the Global Entry program here in San Antonio, it’s very good for the city,” said Bravo, who runs a publishing company in Mexico City with 150 titles and has recently started two magazines in San Antonio.
But DHS isn’t convinced yet. Wagner, the Global Entry program manager, would only say San Antonio is under consideration, as are various other cities.
But Marco Barros of the tourism council thinks he can sweeten the deal to get Wagner to move more quickly.
“There’s ways that we can speed up the process, so instead of waiting to be airport number 11 on the stand-by list, we can move to one or two or three if we offer to pay for the kiosks,” he said.
They go for $25,000 apiece. Barros said he already has some potential investors lined up.