US Customs & Border Protection (CBP), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, is responsible for securing our borders. Theoretically, this means checking each and every individual who arrives by air, sea, or land. It’s a daunting task. As a US immigration attorney, I understand the importance of keeping these guys and gals happy and content — if my client happens to run into a CBP officer who is off their game or having a bad day, my client’s life could be ruined. But border patrol officers can do more than just torpedo the immigration hopes of a foreign national, they can actually affect national economy and security. Can you imagine what would happen if these agents went on strike for just one hour? I shudder to think of what the passport control lines would look like at JFK, LAX, O’Hare or at the San Ysidro border.

UK immigration border officers to strike

Well, folks in the UK are about to get the chance to see, first hand, just what would happen if immigration agents took the day off. In fact, they’ll get to see what it’s like with TWO days off. Approximately 2,500 men and women with the Border Force, part of the larger UK Border Agency, are preparing to go on strike beginning midnight October 13; the strike will last through October 14. The last time UK immigration agents went on strike was approximately 30 years ago.

UK Border agents are required to screen and clear each and every passenger and shipment that enters the UK by air, sea, and train. Approximately 600 of the UK immigration agents are posted at Heathrow Airport in London alone. Other busy immigration areas include Eurostar and Eurorail stations, UK immigration posts in Calais, Dunkirk and Coquelles France, and the countless sea ports that receive shipments and passenger ferries (with and without cars) around the clock. If the strike is allowed to proceed, the disruption for UK commerce and travel could be devastating. However, the UK Home Office, the agency that overseas the UK Border Agency (UKBA), has assured citizens and travelers that contingency plans are in place and that neither travel, commerce nor national security will be affected. Hmm.

UK immigration agents fighting to maintain quality of life

The UK border agents are part of the Immigration Service Union (ISU), with a whopping 83% membership rate. All UKBA immigration inspectors, chief immigration officers, immigration officers and assistant immigration officers are scheduled to take part. Unlike most strikes, where pay and fringe benefits are at issue, the UK immigration agents are striking for non-pay-related issues. Workers argue that recent changes proposed by the government threaten the current work/life balance that so many of them have come to rely on as a major benefit to being a passport control officer.

So, what’s gotten them so upset? Well, the UK Home Office recently announced plans to modify the way officer scheduling was conducted, in addition to loosening qualifications for some key posts. Workers argue that the changes will not only make home life difficult, but it will also put national security at risk.

Currently officers with the UKBA work on a “flexible” staff deployment model. This allows individual workers to be allocated to passport control positions on a daily basis, which is good for emergencies and peak periods (like the recent Icelandic ash disaster). It also allows posts to be manned 24/7 with less disruption to workers’ home and family lives. The proposed changes include dividing up the force into “teams” and imposing inflexible schedules that would be set up to six months in advance. The changes also put less experienced officers in key security posts and could reduce the number of officers required for any given shift. The union fears that this is the first step toward redundancies (lay offs).

Given the sheer number of people that pass through the UK on the way to some other destination, not to mention the number of people who enter the UK on or after a business trip or leisure holiday, this strike has the potential to affect hundreds of thousands over the next few days. If you’re heading to London, make sure you give yourself ample time to pass through UK immigration control.