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U.S. Pre-Clearance Facility In Colombia To Be First In South America

Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport is getting a pre-clearance facility within a year, according to former U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker, giving an interview in a local Colombian Newspaper

Locating the U.S. pre-clearance facility in Colombia is not new. It was a long time coming. Preliminary studies began in November 2016. However, formal high-level talks didn’t start until November 2018.

Kevin Whitaker, the outgoing Ambassador of the U.S. in Colombia confirmed that El Dorado is in the process of receiving a pre-clearance facility within a 12-18 month period. This was his last policy statement before returning to the U.S. from Colombia.

The interview with El Tiempo

Around a month ago, Juan Francisco Valbuena from El Tiempo newspaper (an interview conducted in Spanish for a South American newspaper), went on record.

Valbuena was speaking with Ambassador Whitaker about the United States relationship with Colombia, the growing illegal drug trade, the interdiction strategies the United States did with the Colombians, and the strategies of spraying illegal crops.

He also talked about its next-door neighbor Venezuela and the Maduro regime, the lack of intervention and the diplomatic efforts done so far, and his duration under two Colombian Presidents.

Getting to the end and almost in passing he talked about traveling to the United States from Colombia.

Is it true that the conditions for Colombians are going to change for those traveling to the United States?

(Excerpts from the interview have been translated)

“The law changes through time. If one wants to visit a country, but not as an immigrant, the person needs to demonstrate that he or she is not an immigrant and that one has the ties to return back to the person’s country of origin; it is that simple.”

The U.S. pre-clearance facility in Colombia

He continues: “The great majority of Colombians who go through the process will pass, and I have no doubt that will continue in the future. The difference will be that the process will be done by our Customs & Border Protection officials in Colombia. Within a year the airport (El Dorado) will have this capability and passengers will fly as if they were to take a domestic flight.”

Does it mean that the migration process will be done in Colombia and not in the U.S.?

“Our officers of Customs & Border Protection will be present (at the pre-clearance facility). Once the flight gets to the destinations in the United States they will be treated as an arrival) of any (U.S.) domestic flight.”

He continues: “We started the process. I wanted the process completed during my ambassadorship, unfortunately, that wasn’t possible. Soon the capability will be in place, in about a year or year and a half.”

us pre-clearance facility bogota, colombia
Bogota Colombia. Credit: Unsplash.

What are U.S. Pre-Clearance Facilities, and how does that affect me?

If you are asking yourself this question, you will rejoice at my answer.

U.S. Pre-Clearance Facilities are strategic agreements between the United States and a less than half a dozen countries in which the host country builds a facility to permit United States Customs & Border Protection officers to do the immigration process in the host country instead of the United States.

How many countries have this agreement in place?

Currently, the countries with this type of agreement are the following:

  • Aruba,
  • The Bahamas,
  • Bermuda,
  • Canada,
  • Ireland,
  • The United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The latest country, the UAE, is most controversial of the handful.  

If everything goes according to plan, Colombia will become the seventh country in implementing Pre-Clearance Agreements.

Do CBP officers have the same powers as if they were on United States soil?

Since they are strategic agreements on part of the U.S. government with the host countries, they are at the behest of the host countries laws, regulations and procedures.

While the aircraft is at the departure point it remains at the jurisdiction of the host country.

Officers can question and search passengers (with the passengers and within the country’s legality), however, they do not possess the power of arrest, but do have the power to deny boarding to any U.S. bound flight.

Canada Pre-Clearance Agreement

The only exception would be in Canada as the Pre-Clearance Agreement (known as Bill C-23) gives U.S. Officers:

  • Powers to bear arms,
  • To detain passengers who decide to turn away from U.S. officers at the checkpoints.
  • Question and search even more passengers.

This coming from our northernly neighbor we shouldn’t be surprised they want more of deeper cooperation. More information on that here.

Having these types of facilities shifts the burden overseas

The more facilities we have the less Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has to worry about incoming threats within the U.S. That means more and more people will get screened overseas lowering the chances of a wide range of crimes, from terrorism to fraud, to trafficking and smuggling.

Where could the next facilities of Pre-Clearance be?

Most likely we return North to our neighbors in Canada.

Now within the C-23 Bill, the Department of Homeland Security also includes within the agreement to add the Billy Bishop Airport in Toronto, and the Jean Lesage airport in Quebec City as the latest airports to receive Pre-Clearance Facility.

10 Pre-Clearance facility airport possibilities

If we place Canada aside for a moment and look elsewhere, in 2015 DHS had a list of 10 airports which gave momentum after the Abu Dhabi Pre-Clearance Facility throughout the world, CAPA compiles this list and it is as follows:

Country Airport(s)
Belgium Brussels
Dominican Republic ***Punta Cana
Japan Tokyo Narita
Netherlands Amsterdam Schiphol
Norway Oslo
Spain Madrid Barajas
Sweden Stockholm Arlanda
Turkey Istanbul Ataturk
United Kingdom London HeathrowManchester

***If I were a betting man for the Western Hemisphere surely, it would be Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. Many Americans vacationed there, and the Dominican Republic would benefit after the deaths of American tourists last summer.

What About the United Kingdom? Why there can’t be a Pre-Clearance Facility there

Well if you were asking me, officially the U.K. receives more Americans than the Dominican Republic (D.R.). D.R. according to CAPA doesn’t even get to 80,000 weekly seats, while the U.K. gets closer to half a million weekly seats.

The Heathrow terminals challenge

In addition to the current overcapacity and space constraints, it is impossible to place the CBP Pre-Clearance as it would be ineffective to have agents at all four terminals.

The need for a third runway is crucial for which to set such facility a reality, I further talk about this in my dedicated Heathrow article. I believe once they remedy the spatial requirements, Heathrow could have a CBP Pre-Clearance Facility under one roof.

However, it doesn’t mean that the U.K. options are closed and other airports couldn’t make a run for it like Manchester.

Do not discount the Swedes!

Last I heard negotiations started in 2015 for a Pre-Clearance facility in Stockholm in the hope of gaining more foot traffic and siphon away passengers from Madrid, UK (Heathrow, and Gatwick) and France.

Stockholm Arlanda seems the perfect airport candidate to test the theory; also the Norwegians would like to have their facility in their airport in Oslo as it is on the shortlist.

Madrid as the Dark Horse

There is an airport that American tourists and businesspeople love more than many airports:

Barajas Airport in Madrid.

It is the foothold into the E.U. and it is essential to get a Pre-Clearance facility there as it gets close to 65,000 weekly seats. While the Dominican Republic is more weekly if an airport wants to siphon away from the British, French, Germans, Norwegians, and Swedes what better airport is there on the Continent that Madrid Barajas?

It would make visiting Spain more attractive as it did with Ireland and make it the destination to go visit.

Observations

If I were a betting man (which I’m not), the Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana would be next for the Western Hemisphere. For the old world, I place Sweden Arlanda, Madrid (Barajas) as the dark horse and Norway’s Oslo airports as the frontrunners.       

Featured Image Credit: US Customs and Border Protection.

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