Federal budget cuts to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol that have already delayed thousands of international passengers at South Florida’s air and sea ports are starting to affect a different type of cargo: flowers.
Ninety percent of all flowers imported to the United States arrive through Miami International Airport, where they are inspected by customs officers who specialize in perishable goods. If inspections are delayed, local importers run the risk of having flowers go bad — or at least not arriving in time to make it into refrigerated trucks for delivery across the country.
It’s not just flowers being threatened by the cuts. Tons of fish, fruits and vegetables — including 97 percent of all the asparagus brought into the country — must also clear MIA customs every day. They are being delayed by the federal cuts known as the sequester, which has resulted in slashed overtime pay for customs officers.
“We’re talking billions of dollars in goods,” said Bill Johnson, director of PortMiami, which has also seen slower cargo ship inspections since the automatic, across-the-board cuts began March 1.
The port has been trying to drum up new fresh-produce cargo business from countries such as Costa Rica, Peru and Chile, said Johnson said, who met Wednesday in Tallahassee with Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam to relay concerns that the customs delays could deter any potential deals.
Johnson spoke at a news conference organized at the airport Thursday by U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, a Democrat whose Kendall-to-Key West district includes many small businesses that import flowers and produce. Garcia sent a letter Thursday to the House appropriations committee asking for “strong funding levels” for customs officers.