Robert E. Perez, is director, field operations (DFO), of the New York Field Office for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Office of Field Operations. His area of responsibility in the New York-New Jersey area includes two of the country’s five busiest international airports, John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and Newark Liberty International Airport, as well as the East Coast’s largest container seaport. As New York DFO, Perez manages an operating budget of more than $225 million and manages more than 2,800 employees responsible for anti-terrorism efforts, immigration and admissibility operations, agricultural inspections, and trade enforcement and facilitation. Prior to his selection as New York DFO, Perez served as DFO and port director in Detroit from 2005 through 2008. Perez served as the first director of the Customs–Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) program from April 2002 through its launch in December 2004, overseeing development and implementation of all the anti-terrorism industry partnership programs for CBP. He joined the former U.S. Customs Service in 1992 as a customs inspector in Newark, New Jersey. He has been a guest lecturer at the Georgetown University Law Center, Michigan State University Law School, the International Law Enforcement Academy in Budapest, Hungary, and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Perez is a graduate of Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree in economics, and he is a graduate of the Senior Executive Fellows program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. (His remarks have been edited to accommodate space limitations. Read the full interview online.)
Q. What is the scope of your office’s jurisdiction, and what challenges does it pose?
A. Certainly, the sheer volume of people and goods entering the country through the region poses unique challenges, both from a security standpoint and as far as having to expedite movement of legitimate travelers and cargo day in and day out. Between JFK and Newark Liberty airports, we process, on average, upwards of about 100,000 international aircraft arrivals yearly, with 16 million arriving international passengers.
In addition, we have the busiest seaport on the East Coast, second nationally only to the Port of Long Beach, California. We process air and sea cargo worth about $170 billion in trade every year, which is shipped in about 1 million international containers.
Every person who arrives here, and each one of those shipments or containers, presents a challenge or risk that we have to assess and then decide what level of scrutiny that particular singular arrival warrants. That is a very in-depth and complex decision-making process that frankly speaks to the greatest strengths of CBP.
Q. How do your office’s capabilities differ from those of U.S. Customs prior to 9-11?
A. In addition to the former Customs service that formed CBP were big chunks of what was the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as well as the frontline inspection arm of the Department of Agriculture. So it was really a swath, if you will, of three different agencies that came together to form CBP. You now have a singular federal presence at the border, which in and of itself creates vast efficiencies as far as our ability to manage the business of the borders.
But each of those former agencies’ capabilities have changed. Our ability to collect information well in advance, to digest it, to make informed decisions regarding risk of all people and things arriving at our borders—is vastly superior to what it was just seven years ago. But the greatest difference is in terms of process evolution, technological evolution, and certainly evolution of partnerships with the private sector and with our federal counterparts, that has really enabled us to get the job done at the borders like never before.
Q. How does your office work with partners at other levels of government—state, city, and local—to accomplish its mission?
A. As you might imagine, that really is almost a daily occurrence, particularly at the airports. We have the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department, which is present at JFK and Newark Liberty, but then you have the New York Police Department (NYPD), which obviously is a very active law enforcement presence, and then, of course, all of the federal partners.
Q. How does your office fuse and share threat information with its various partners?
A. We do everything we possibly can to make sure that we’re exchanging information—particularly threat-related information—and that we have open lines of communication. CBP has representation on the FBI-led regional joint terrorism task forces (JTTFs), and there are two in this area. There’s one right here in New York City; there’s another in Newark on the northern New Jersey side.
In addition, we also have our own intelligence and targeting units that are internal to CBP where we have representation from other federal agencies. These are the folks doing those risk assessments day-to-day, identifying those high-risk targets for us. These are the two primary platforms that we use, and by and large the system works exceptionally well.
Q. How does your office engage private sector partners?
A. As far as our relationship with the stakeholders we have the most impact on—the commercial entities that enter through the border like carriers and traders—I think our relationship is very strong. CBP has a very unique law enforcement mission, and probably the most complicated one in all law enforcement, where we interact with all traders and travelers, but the vast majority are perfectly compliant folks and businesses.
We’re charged with whittling away at that large haystack to find the needles. We have Global Entry, for example, which is one of our trusted traveler programs, where people can voluntarily sign up with CBP and be eligible for more expedited processing through the points of entry. On the commercial cargo side, under the C-TPAT program, vetted companies that have passed muster in various ways are designated trusted traders.
The more folks and companies that we can get into these programs, the better it is for them and the better it is for us. Those who are part of the programs get to travel through the borders and move their goods through the borders more expeditiously, and we’re able to segregate risk more effectively.
Q. How effective is CBP in its effort to push the border outward?
A. For all containerized cargo, a vast amount of information must be transmitted to us 24 hours prior to lading on the vessel. So we actually have 24 hours’ advanced visibility of what exactly is coming our way so that we can assess that risk that much sooner.
We also have the Container Security Initiative (CSI), in which we have CBP officers working alongside foreign law enforcement in ports around the world. Under CSI, if we encounter a container prior to lading that we deem of sufficient risk, we have the option to pull it off and have it inspected by our foreign counterpart while we observe. It’s a capability we’ve had actually for many years. So if something poses a significant risk, we are more often than not able to pull that off well before it ever gets near our shores.
If new intelligence arises while a container is en route, with all sorts of screening technology, from radiation detectors to gamma and x-ray imaging and certainly manpower upon arrival, we are able to make sure that those cargoes are adequately examined before being allowed to enter into the domestic supply chain.
Q. What did it mean to your office to capture Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad?
A. With Shahzad it certainly was very meaningful for not only all of us here in New York and at JFK, given the circumstances and what he tried to perpetrate, but certainly for the agency as a whole. It can’t be overstated: it was a lot of hard work, a lot of pride, a lot of professionalism in the fact that we were able to successfully come to that conclusion.
To make the capture, everybody worked together over the course of a few days, collecting information, digesting it, and disseminating it to the people who needed to know, and in a timely fashion to be able to identify and then capture him.
Q. What are your office’s primary goals?
A. We’ve put on a pretty hard push here locally to try to expand our enrollment in the trusted traveler and trader programs—Global Entry and C-TPAT. We’re up to just under 10,000 members in Global Entry to date.
In addition to expanding those programs, we want to continue to do as much as we can to evolve processes and advance use of new technologies. Often times, when the agency is prototyping new technologies and processes, they’ll come here, because if you can do it in New York, you can do it anywhere. But we’re certainly looking for new ways to evolve.
The other thing I would add is that we want to continue to partner with our law enforcement counterparts—state and local—but also with our stakeholders here, to address the challenges posed by 21st Century travel and commerce. I’m going to continue to look to work with our stakeholders to make sure that we remain a global leader in that regard.