MARTIN J. KIDSTON Independent Record (Editor's note: This is the final installment in a three-part series) CUT BANK (AP)
When Robert DesRosier looks north into Canada and east toward t h e B l a c k f e e t I n d i a n Reservation, he admits that if he were a smuggler, or perhaps a terrorist, he would take advantage of the reservation's lack of security. DesRosier, a tall and easy speaking man, is one of just two tribal members working to secure the reservation's 65 miles of international border. It's a daunting task and one DesRosier says goes largely unsupported by the federal government. "The things that come through here could affect the rest of the nation," he said after a scouting flight over the border. "But one of the things that af fects us the most wi th Homeland Security is that we don't often get the money to operate or maintain a good border protection program." DesRosier took on the Blackfeet Nation's Homeland Security mission one week after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He and his partner a Blackfeet man who asked the Independent Record that his name not be used represent the sum total of the reservation's effort to secure the border. The program has made progres s s ince i t s incept ion. Relationships have been forged with nearby law enforcement agencies, including the Glacier County Sheriff's Department and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Even the Blackfeet Tribal Council supports the mission, helping out in a pinch if DesRosier needs it. But DesRosier admits that his program has taken small steps backward. It hasn't grown much during the past six years and that leaves him frustrated. What's more, he said, it continues to struggle for funding. "We'd like to have a full-time program that puts Blackfeet people to work on the northern border," he said. "I'd like to see 10 to 12 people who are full-time employees working Homeland Security for the Blackfeet Nation. I'd like to do rotating shifts, and that means vehicles and equipment." DesRosier and his partner, along with a host of Native American agents from southern Arizona, have gathered in Cut Bank to fly the border with a drug interdiction pilot from the Montana National Guard. Doing so, DesRosier hopes, will reveal the illegal crossing points that lie invisible to those on the ground. Knowing where the roads and trails lie will help his team devise a better plan, one he may deploy with limited manpower. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that funding isn't going to the reservations like it is to the rest of the country," he said. "If I was a smuggler, I certainly wouldn't go through the Port of Sweetgrass or the Port of Piegan. It's common sense. The smugglers aren't dumb. They know what's going on." DesRosier's words mirror those spoken by Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera two weeks earlier. The 14 ports of entry dotting Montana's northern tier are well secured. But the 545 miles between them are lonely, open miles with only farmers and a handful of Border Patrol agents keeping watch. "Putting myself in the shoes of doing criminal activity, it's a tossup whether I'd try to cross at a busy station or at a location with limited personnel," Szudera said at his Havre office. "I personally would take the risk of doing it in a location with a smaller amount of traffic." That's what has DesRosier concerned. Aside from the weather and expansive terrain, there's little to stop smugglers and illegal aliens from crossing the reservation and reaching the highway, where they may disappear into the Montana population. Smugglers have been known to fly drugs across the border and drop them for collection. Others move on four-wheeler or foot. They set their package by a trail or road, marking it in some unsuspecting way for future collection. In land this big and rugged, catching them, says one Native American agent, is a game of luck, good intelligence and planning. "We've seen increased activity on the border," the agent said, shaking his head. "You'll see roads, illegal crossings on the border. If somebody wanted to get across the international boundary bad enough to go around a port of entry, it usually means there's something on their mind." DesRosier's team has won small victories in securing funding for border security, mainly a small grant from the Department of Justice and funds for two-way radios. Still, he says, the tribe remains at a disadvantage due to the way Homeland Security funding is distributed. For starters, he said, the tribe must apply for money at the state level while the state, in contrast, gets money directly from the federal government. There's no money for tribal salaries, nothing in the tribal budget to pay personnel to actively patrol the border or do Homeland Security work. "We've always maintained that we need to have a funding path in place directly to the federal government," he said. "Not to say that we're going to be competing with the states. But the federal government must recognize Indian Country's needs when it comes to Homeland Security. We don't think they adequately address that now." As a result, DesRosier fears that smugglers and illegal aliens who want to cross the international border will do so on the reservation.