By Tim Leeds
The main problem in patrolling Montana's borders with Canada is simple there are too few people patrolling too long a border.
That was the topic of discussion at a meeting hosted by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Friday in Havre.
"I know several places you can get across illegally," Whitlash resident Suni Thompson said. "What would happen if terrorists really wanted to get across?"
State and regional representatives of the U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. Customs Service, the National Guard, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the federal Food and Drug Administration met at the Holiday Village Shopping Center to discuss what has happened and what needs to happen to increase border security since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Representatives from the Canadian Customs and Revenue, and Citizenship and Immigration agencies also spoke at the meeting.
Thompson said she and her husband, Earl, helped two Canadians who were stuck in one of the Thompson's fields. The Canadians said they were trying to sneak fireworks across the border. The Thompsons never heard if the pair was caught, she said.
At the meeting, Border Patrol Patrol Chief Robert Finley said that everyone who lives and works in northern Montana knows how easy it is to sneak across the border.
The Border Patrol needs about five times as many people as it has on staff to patrol Montana's border full time, Finley said. While the number has been increased since Sept. 11, he said, there still isn't enough.
"We're depending on you to call us and let us know. I'll get somebody out of bed. I'll go myself if I have to," Finley added.
The increase in Border Patrol agents, Finley said, is long overdue. At the U.S. southern border with Mexico, there are nearly three agents for every mile.
"We're certainly not getting a square deal. Up until 9-11 the northern border was forgotten," he said. "That is our big problem. We've been ignored a long time."
Some increases under the new concern for homeland security will help, said Finley, whose office has only one airplane, but is scheduled to get another plane and a helicopter. Remote videos and sensors will also be set up, although installing and maintaining them raises other problems, Finley said.
Without the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police patrolling the border, the U.S. Border Patrol wouldn't be able to do the job, he added.
The Border Patrol has also been helped by the U.S. National Guard. Along with assisting with airport security since Sept. 11, the National Guard has been helping staff the borders.
Adjutant Gen. Gene Prendergrast said that as of June 11, the Pentagon has approved allowing members of the Guard on the border to carry weapons. The Guard will continue to help at the border, along with other duties in the state, he said.
"We're here to help you across Montana," Prendergast said.
Harry Thomas, district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said his agency has brought many new people into Montana. People might see some new faces at entry points, and should be prepared for some different, and possibly more thorough, inspections.
"How they inspect someone in Chicago might be different than the way people are used to at Sweetgrass," Thomas said. "Be prepared for a more detailed inspection. People are very desperate to come into the United States."
New documentation is not required to cross the border, he said, but everyone should carry photo ID.
Vic Miller, Blaine County Commissioner, asked Baucus what is being done to ensure people's rights aren't forgotten in the effort to protect homeland security.
There is a dialogue going on to make sure people's civil liberties aren't trampled on, Baucus said.
"It's a never-ending battle," he said. "It's a high concern for all of us."
Havre resident Charles Grant asked Baucus how a government Grant said is inadequate to the job can handle a situation like the threat of terrorism.
Baucus agreed that handling the threat to homeland security is a new problem.
"This is a whole new era. We've never seen anything like it in our civilization," Baucus said.
The solution will take efforts in several areas, he added. Having a large army is not enough.
Part of the solution will be coordinating efforts at all levels the reason the meeting was held, Baucus said. Another part of the solution will be aggressively seeking and catching terrorists.
"Something will happen. It's up to us to take this extremely seriously," Baucus said.
Don Marble of Chester said some simple actions could help the situation at the border. The all-gravel road from Chester to the port near Whitlash causes problems for travelers, emergency vehicles and border personnel, he said.
Baucus said financing roadwork is always a problem in Montana. A new highway bill will soon be discussed in Congress, and the road north of Chester could be addressed, he said.
Thomas Hardy of Seattle, director of field operations for the Customs Service in this region, said the number of customs inspectors in Montana has jumped from 72 to 106 since Sept. 11. That number should grow to 144 in 2003, he added.
Whether that will be enough depends on the final mission of Customs in Montana, Hardy said. If security at the ports can be tightened using technology like video cameras, more inspectors probably won't be needed.
If all ports are manned at all times, it would take a significant staff increase, for a relatively small number of travelers, Hardy said.
Richard Anderson of Citizenship and Immigration Canada said his country is also increasing staffing on the border. Security is being tightened, but the average traveler shouldn't really notice the difference, he said.