Border patrol agents ease border congestion - for now

Published on Thu, Nov 1, 2001 by Meg Olson

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Border patrol agents ease border congestion - for now

By Meg Olson

Regular border-crossers have noticed a change in the last week: more lanes are open and there’s green mixed in with black and white uniforms.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization (INS) retrained and reassigned 100 border patrol agents to help ease congestion along the northern border, Carolyn Muyzka, INS deputy regional director for the west coast region, told listeners at the Autumn Border Business Conference in Bellingham October 24. Twenty-one of the agents are now working the lanes at Whatcom County ports of entry.

“I look forward to seeing additional decreases in wait times,” Muyzka said. Wait times at Peace Arch and Pacific Highway have increased 2.8 and 6 times, respectively, in the 35 days following September 11 compared with the 35 days prior, according to INS data. The average morning peak wait time during that period, between 7 and 8 a.m., was just shy of an hour for both crossings. In the evening, from 6 to 8 p.m., wait times averaged an hour, slightly more at Pacific Highway.

Muyzka stressed her agency would continue to maintain heightened security at border crossings but, with adequate resources, would try and make the increased scrutiny as transparent to travel and trade as possible. “What we are attempting to do is rebuild a sense of security and regain that freedom from fear,” she said. “We are very keen to the fact that this is impacting business and commerce every day.” Some local businesses have reported up to a 60 percent decrease in business since September 11.

Ron Hays, INS district chief of inspections said the initial detail for the agents was for sixty days, split into two 30-day details for two pair of agents. “We hope to be able to get extra lanes open and reduce overtime,” he said.

The border patrol agents are the second wave of extra staff to boost local borders. Earlier in the month ten additional INS inspectors were transferred to Whatcom County ports of entry.

Muyzka said discussions were underway with officials from border states to use the national guard at local borders to increase security and free up trained customs and immigration staff.

On the day of the conference county executive Pete Kremen was joined by Mike Brennan, Bellingham Whatcom Chamber of Commerce president, Jim Miller from the council of governments and Fred Sexton of the economic development council in asking the governor to give the O.K. “Since the events of September 11, 2001, Whatcom County has experienced a severe downturn in border traffic resulting in an extreme slowdown in our economy,” they wrote. “Our ability to conduct free and timely commerce with our largest trading partner is essential.”

District director Bob Coleman emphasized that the additional resources would help but not eliminate border lineups. “We didn’t have enough people before September 11 to do our job and we don’t now. There are peak wait times that still exceed our capacity,” he said. “We are in overtime and in overdrive but the brutal answer is our capacity does not meet demands of travelers. When people begin to want to travel again things will continue to get tough.”

Coleman and Muyzka said additional resources in recent legislation and bills now being considered by Congress would help provide more permanent relief at land borders. They told those attending the Bellingham conference to encourage legislators to make sure relief for the northern border came through. “The billion dollars in trade our countries now enjoy is worth more than the 500 immigration inspectors you’ve got between Point Roberts and the last place in Maine,” Coleman said. “Protecting the openness is worth doing but it takes people.”

Both 2002 appropriations bills now in conference between the houses of the U.S. Congress that provide for the INS and Customs regular budgets contain additional resources for the northern border. The anti-terrorism bill signed by President George W. Bush October 26 authorizes a tripling of personnel on the northern border and $50 million each for INS and Customs to use technology to improve border efficiency. The key now, said members of the Washington delegation at a conference the morning of the bill approval, was to make sure the administration delivered on the promised new resources. “We need to make sure the funds are there to hire these agents,” said Senator Patty Murray.

“With more agents at the border we will be able to keep out the bad traffic and encourage the good,” U.S. Representative Rick Larsen said. “Finally we will have increased resources to address our burden at the border.”

Rather than beefing up the border between Canada and the United States Michel Smith, the director for Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s B.C. and Yukon Region, spoke of the two countries collaborating to make sure “undesirables” never get that far. “Increased stringent control outside North America will allow us to manage our borders more effectively,” he said, outlining a series of measures his agency would be taking to identify and remove potential threats already in Canada and those applying for admission. Smith also described coordination with U.S. border agencies. “We are working together to identify inconsistent policies,” he said.
“Canada and the U.S. share a border of 4,000 miles,” Smith said. “We are bound together not only by history but by economy. Security measures should not impede the flow of legitimate trade and travel.”

Several speakers at the conference called for agencies on both sides of the border to focus on new, cooperative ways to keep traffic moving in an era of increased security, from perimeter security for North America and high-tech commuter to a joint U.S/Canada force guarding the shared border.

Glenn Pascall of the West Coast Corridor Coalition suggested sharing facilities with cross-deputized inspectors enforcing the laws of both countries. “That’s part of the personnel solution but also part of building a coordinated approach,” he said. He also suggested the development of a North American passport system.

Representing the Cascadia Project, Charles Kelley said a bi-national border management strategy was needed. “I don’t think binational border management is rocket science,” he said. “We can do it if the political will is there, but we need to make that case now or we’ll be back to ideas of “fortress America.”

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