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updated: 3/16/2020 8:07 AM

Customs agents doubled after ‘totally unacceptable’ delays at O’Hare

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  • Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks to reporters at O'Hare International Airport on Sunday.

    Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks to reporters at O'Hare International Airport on Sunday.
    AP Photo/Teresa Crawford

  • In this Saturday, March 14, 2020 photo provided by Elizabeth Pulvermacher, travelers returning from Madrid wait in a coronavirus screening line at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Long lines and hourslong waits for required medical screenings greeted weary travelers returning to some U.S. airports amid coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

    In this Saturday, March 14, 2020 photo provided by Elizabeth Pulvermacher, travelers returning from Madrid wait in a coronavirus screening line at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Long lines and hourslong waits for required medical screenings greeted weary travelers returning to some U.S. airports amid coronavirus-related travel restrictions.
    Elizabeth Pulvermacher via AP

 
 

Authorities said they've doubled the number of customs agents on duty at O'Hare International Airport after hundreds of frustrated travelers returning from overseas stood in line for hours Saturday waiting to undergo screening for coronavirus.

Images of those long lines prompted Gov. J.B. Pritzker to skewer federal officials, first on Twitter late Saturday night and again Sunday morning when he appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"The federal government needs to get its (expletive) together. NOW," Pritzker tweeted shortly before 10 p.m. Saturday.

On "Meet the Press," Pritzker said customs authorities should have expected a rush of travelers returning in the wake of a travel ban imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"What should have happened, they should have increased the customs and border patrol numbers and they should have increased the number of CDC personnel on the ground doing those checks," he said. "They did neither of those. So last night as people were flooding into O'Hare Airport, they were stuck in a small area, hundreds and hundreds of people, and that's exactly what you don't want in this pandemic."

Pritzker said the initial response to his tweet Saturday night was a call from a White House staff member who yelled at him about it.

But on Sunday he said he spoke with Vice President Mike Pence and the head of the Department of Homeland Security, who pledged additional staffing at the airport.

"My anger had everything to do with protecting the health and safety of the people of our state," Pritzker said Sunday. "If getting mad on Twitter is what it takes to get federal officials to act, then I am absolutely going to do that."

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot visited O'Hare on Sunday to see the situation, which she labeled a "fail" by the federal government.

"Last night we saw (travelers) safety and security was seriously compromised and people were forced into conditions that are against CDC guidance and are totally unacceptable," Lightfoot said.

Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan said he recognized wait times were unacceptable at some airports.

"With this national emergency, there will unfortunately be times of disruption and increased processing times for travelers. CBP is working around the clock to minimize these inconveniences.

"As we work collaboratively with federal, state, and local agencies to address the spread of COVID-19, some of the resources of our partners are stretched thin," Morgan said.

Illinois lawmakers, including Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Springfield and Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates, and U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Schaumburg, asked the federal government for more resources at O'Hare and 12 other airports handling enhanced screening of international travelers.

"We request that you expedite the process of providing guidelines and the necessary resources, including staff and any required screening apparatus and processes, to these 13 airports to ensure their operations are not disrupted and that public health is preserved," Duckworth and Durbin wrote in a letter to heads of the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection.