Greg Alvarez, Blaine Port Director for Customs and Border Protection (CBP), likes to get involved. Shortly after moving to his new post in April, an SUV was stopped at the border and inspectors discovered a hidden compartment that contained a load of ecstasy-like BZP pills.
“He went further in trying to find the hidden compartment than I would have,” said CBP’s public affairs chief Tom Schreiber. “Alvarez wanted to find the key, usually a combination of a switch here and a button there, that would open it up instead of just prying it open. He even slid underneath the chassis on his back, pawing around, and he eventually found the combination. He then brought over some new inspectors to show them how he did this.” Schreiber said the story illustrates how Alvarez brings an unusual combination of training knowledge and an intuitive sense of when to apply it, “and that makes for very effective leadership.”
Alvarez, 38, grew up in McAllen, Texas. He served in the Marine Corps for seven years after graduating from the University of Texas and was in Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia, when he was offered a job with the old U. S. Customs Service.
After six years on the southern border he went to Washington, D.C., to work with the state department in helping establish customs services in some of the new republics born after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He returned to the field two years later to a small station north of Cut Bank, Montana, before moving to Great Falls CBP service area as assistant port director for tactical operations, covering Idaho and Montana.
“Probably 90 percent of our work is providing service to people crossing the border,” Alvarez said, “trying to get them on their way, but for the 10% or so who present problems then as an upper level supervisor I need to understand what that’s all about. I have to make sure that a given officer is using his or her authority appropriately. That’s why I wanted to get back into the field. There’s nothing like direct experience.”
Alvarez wears a regular line officer uniform to work, and several border inspectors agreed when asked over the past few weeks that this was not just a pose. “He’s willing to get right down there with us,” said one inspector, “and most of the people here really like working with him. It’s a refreshing change.”
Blaine’s port of entry includes the Peace Arch and state highway 543 crossings. About 300 employees clear seven million people and three million cars a year. The Blaine service area that Alvarez also administers includes all the land border ports in the state of Washington and employs an additional 200 people. “The biggest part of our job is facilitation, trying to help people get across the border legally and quickly,” he said. “At Peace Arch we’re averaging about 50 seconds per person to clear people, and in the NEXUS lane it’s between 12 and 15 seconds per person.”
His department’s statistics reflect significant improvements in border wait times. “I know that waiting an hour is a long time, but for comparison, last year’s Fourth of July weekend had wait times of an hour and a half to two hours between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. all weekend, while this year the longest wait time was about 75 minutes.”
Alvarez said that any time the wait exceeds 90 minutes it must be reported to CBP headquarters in Washington, D.C., along with what’s being done to mitigate the problem. “Last summer this happened all the time on the weekends, but this year we’ve only had one 90-minute plus line, on Victoria Day weekend.”
Alvarez noted that Blaine is growing with 100 new officers added in 2008 alone, “but just adding people doesn’t automatically decrease the wait time. There’s just so much capacity, which is why the new facility will help at the Peace Arch. The new Canadian building there has dramatically reduced the lines going north, and we’ll see the same thing here when the lanes open this fall.”
Alvarez said that he expects significant improvement in throughput capacity when the northbound I-5 lanes open in September followed by the southbound inspection lanes in late October or early November, although that’s too late for the World Police and Fire Games in Vancouver, set for July 31 through August 9. “That will produce weekend traffic loads during the week, but we’re anticipating it,” he said.
Alvarez smiled when asked about Point Roberts, a place he said knew well after his first week on the job. “We’ve increased staff there, too, and are looking at other ways to speed it up.”