It’s going be a long, hot summer at the border

Published on Thu, Feb 21, 2002 by Meg Olson

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It’s going be a long, hot summer at the border

By Meg Olson

An Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) plan to bring 55 new inspectors and nine support staff to local borders got final approval from Washington D.C. yesterday, but the new staff won’t be here to help with the summer rush – maybe the Christmas rush, though.

“This is a substantial investment in our nation’s homeland and economic security,” said U.S. Representative Rick Larsen, who in December requested 70 new positions be filled at local ports of entry. “Before September 11 there were only 52 regular permanent INS inspectors at the five border crossings in my district. The new inspectors that are coming will more than double staffing levels along western Washington’s northern border.”

“They just announced it so they’ll begin the hiring process now,” said INS Seattle district spokesman Garrison Courtney. “With background checks, selection and sixteen weeks of training it will be six to ten months before they’re in position.”

Ron Hays, head of inspections for the district, said some of the new inspectors would be journeymen transferred here or new hires already selected and in process, so some would trickle in earlier. “It may get better before Labor Day,” he said. On the other hand, some inspectors are leaving jobs with the INS for more lucrative jobs such as the air marshals that qualify them for law enforcement retirement benefits. “Every federal enforcement agency is hiring now,” he said.

The plan would assign 20 new inspectors and five support staff to the Peace Arch port of entry. Pacific Highway would receive 15 new officers and three support staff. Seven new inspectors and one support worker will go to Sumas, nine inspectors to Lynden and three to Point Roberts. The Blaine sector border patrol will also get an additional 40 agents to patrol between the ports of entry.

“The justification of the number of people was to respond to changing realities at the border,” said Ron Hays, head of inspections for the Seattle district. “First, we want enough time and enough people to find any travelers with bad intent. The state of the border today is the new state of normalcy. With the additional inspectors we’ll be able to maintain this pace of operations without burning our people out.”

Hays said the new inspectors would allow more lanes to be open, but he couldn’t say how many, given changing workloads. For example, during the summer months when agents are most needed at local borders they also need to be assigned to cruise terminals in Vancouver and the airport. “What I can say is if I come up there and find a room full of INS inspectors doing nothing, someone’s going to pay,” he said. “If there are four extra people on day shift there should be two extra lanes open.” When 21 border patrol agents and eight inspectors detailed from other districts were working local ports, Hays said, “we had the majority of lanes open as opposed to now when the majority are closed. We’d like to get back to having more open than closed.”

Some new staff will be used to man the NEXUS commuter lanes, which Hays said will start operating at local ports this summer. Additional clerical staff are now being hired to run the ten-workstation enrollment office at Pacific Highway in an effort to speed the re-enrollment of the 145,000 PACE members. “We hope to have that going by July,” Hays said. Hays said the program would be a joint U.S. Canada operation, but how agencies from the two countries would cooperate was still being worked out. “I don’t know what their schedule for opening northbound is,” he said.

Once enough members are enrolled Hays said the first NEXUS lane will open at Pacific Highway, where infrastructure improvements needed for the new lane are already in place. “There won’t be an access lane that extends beyond the plaza at this time,” Hays said, which means any backup would land program participants in the same line with everyone else.

A NEXUS lane at the Peace Arch crossing would be more accessible for commuters, but Hays said surveyors have identified substantial improvements to be made before it can open. A lane at Point Roberts is also planned.

Hays said he understood the frustration of local border users and businesses at the lag time between Congressional approval of extra resources for the border last fall and improvements at local borders.

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