Congress comes to Blaine for local view on border

Published on Thu, Dec 13, 2001 by Meg Olson

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Congress comes to Blaine for
local view on border

By Meg Olson

More of everything was the theme of this week’s congressional field hearing on border issues. To balance more security with economic demands for more freely moving goods and people, the answer is more staff, more technology and more infrastructure.

“Every person in our community and neighboring communities across the border realizes the importance of keeping our borders secure,” said Blaine Chamber of Commerce president Pam Christianson, one of 14 panelists who testified at the hearing. “We would ask you to understand that, in order for our communities to survive, it is imperative that people are able to move freely between the U.S. and Canada without worrying about lineups and excessive delays.”

The December 10 hearing of the subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources of the House committee on government reform was one of a series of hearings being held at border crossings across the country. “We’re trying to figure out multi-tiered solutions here,” said subcommittee chairman Mark Souder, R-Indiana. While more resources for staffing and technology and greater cooperation on security with Canada were options being considered, loosening up security at the border was not. “Our political pressure right now is zero tolerance,” Souter said. “The American people aren’t going to tolerate a second round [of domestic attacks]. We aren’t going to back off on security.”

Joining Souder for the hearing, Representative Rick Larsen acknowledged the need for maintaining security but said local communities couldn’t wait for long term solutions. “Whatcom County has sort of been hit by the perfect storm,” Larsen said. “First the energy crisis, then the decline in the economy, and then September 11. Whatcom County is unique economically and geographically, which calls for unique solutions.”

Topping the list of solutions for Larsen and most of the panelists was the reestablishment of a commuter lane at local borders. “Give us NEXUS now,” Larsen asked Robert Coleman, district director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

NEXUS, a pilot commuter lane program developed with funds allocated by congress to expand the now defunct PACE commuter lane program, was closed at the Port Huron, Michigan test site September 11. Coleman said a private contractor was evaluating NEXUS and, when the results were in, his agency would move as quickly as possible to get lanes up and running locally. “Installing the equipment will take 90 days but I caution that enrolling the over 150,000 participants now enrolled in PACE will be the hard part,” he said. Coleman said the enrollment process, which includes fingerprinting, FBI background checks and a photograph, could take five staff members and a supervisor, cutting into inspectors manning lanes if staffing doesn’t increase.

State Senator Georgia Gardner said groups most impacted by border delays, specifically Point Roberts residents and people who cross the border for work, should be given priority for NEXUS enrollment. “Point Roberts is, for all intents and purposes, completely cut off,” she said.

Representing a coalition of cross-border business interests, David Anderson of the Pacific Corridor Enterprise Council said he supported legislation to make commuter lanes free. “There are real dividends to moving people out of the general stream and into the commuter lane,” he said. “When you drain the stream of the legitimate business traveler you allow inspectors to concentrate on the problems.” A bill introduced November 30 by Senator Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, is intended to build on additional resources and powers the recently adopted PATRIOT act allocated for national security. The Kennedy bill would funnel an additional $150 million each to INS and customs to improve technology at the border and expand pre-clearance programs. The bill also directs federal agencies to waive fees for pre-clearance programs and offset those fees by increasing fees for arrival/departure documents at land borders.

While a commuter lane will make the border easier for frequent travelers, panelists agreed more staff is needed to get all traffic, from tourists to trucks, moving again. Customs port director Peg Fearon said year-end figures showed 100,000 less cars and 50,000 less trucks crossed the border in 2001 compared to 2000, with most of the impact after September 11. “I know it’s been down 30 to 40 percent in the last two months,” she said.

Representatives from border enforcement agencies emphasized that, without more resources they couldn’t meet the demands of increased security and keep traffic moving swiftly. “It takes people on the ground, in the booths and in supporting offices to keep legitimate traffic and commerce moving while interdicting those who would do us harm,” said U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) district director Bob Coleman.

As lines grow longer, fewer people appear willing to make the trip across the border and local businesses lose customers. “If the border traffic isn’t moving, our resorts and restaurants are empty,” Gardner said. Terry Preshaw of the Vancouver Board of Trade added new companies would be reluctant to come to the northwest. “They won’t be investing here if the sorry state of the border isn’t remedied,” she said.

“Some of the problem is psychological and some is real, people worrying there might be a line,” Souder said. “Psychologically, it would certainly make a difference to see every booth manned,” Preshaw answered.
Congress has passed legislation to more than triple the number of U.S. Customs, INS and Border Patrol on the northern border, but the short term need is to maintain staffing at an adequate level until new inspectors are hired and trained. Coleman and customs director of field operations Tom Hardy said both their agencies had temporarily reassigned staff to the northern border which had helped ease lineups. However, Coleman said the detail for 21 border patrol agents assigned to man local ports would be over December 21 and eight INS inspectors on loan from ports that are slow in winter would be going back in May.

Larsen said agencies needed to take steps to keep extra staff in place. “I support moving the National Guard up here but as a support, not a replacement,” he said. National Guard soldiers began being deployed last week to help with border security.

Representing the INS inspectors union, Jerry Emery said keeping and bringing in experienced staffwas critical to keeping the border efficient and secure. He said inspectors often felt “hampered by an organizational interest in facilitation” and demoralized by disparities in pay and benefits with other federal agencies. “The longer you work at this job the better you get,” he said. “If we can’t retain these officers we can’t do a good job.”

Border patrol chief patrol agent Ron Henley said interagency and cross-border cooperation would help stretch existing staffing. “By far the best strategy to leverage our resources is to liaison and share real-time intelligence with other enforcement agencies,” he said. “There is a common goal of more security.”

Canadian Member of Parliament Val Meredith suggested the creation of a bi-national border management agency that could eventually be expanded to include Mexico. The new agency would put the most intense scrutiny on goods and people as they came to North America and avoid duplication at the U.S.-Canada border. “I am suggesting we go beyond piecemeal agreements and move to a fully integrated agency,” she said.

Larsen asked how much national sovereignty, how many civil liberties, panelists were willing to give up in the quest for a safe north America. “I believe both countries are willing to make some sacrifices,” Preshaw said. ‘You’ll hear some kicking and screaming but in the end most people will be well served by continental security.” .

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