MARTIN J. KIDSTON Independent Record SWEETGRASS (AP)
The checkpoint into the United States appears like a fortress dropped in the middle of Interstate 15. Traffic north into Canada is sparse but the cars heading south into Montana move steadily, a stop-and-go line 15 minutes long. Drug dogs sniff bumpers and tailpipes. Officers direct commercial trucks to nearby lanes where the cargo is scanned. Cameras monitor each gate, not only here but at a dozen other ports across Montana's northern tier, most of which close after dark. At night, not too long ago, officers with U.S. Customs blocked the roads from Canada into Montana with a simple traffic cone. Back then, there was little to fear. Now, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, efforts have been made to harden the nation's borders with more than a rubber cone, including the 545-mile stretch between Montana and Canada. Down south on the Mexican border, the effort has included fence building, military training, infrared cameras and high-Altitude balloons. But up here where drug smuggling and terrorism not illegal immigration pose the greatest threat, the efforts have focused more on deterrence than outright barrier building. Beyond the drone of traffic and the smell of exhaust, a bank of television monitors line the wall in a room on the port's second floor. The cameras flash and pan, pointing down at open roads crossing the border into Montana. The black and white pictures never stop turning. Together, they do what Customs officials can't by observing the ports around the clock. When a car approaches it sounds an alarm, alerting an agent in Sweetgrass of gate activity taking place as far away as the Port of Raymond, 300 miles east. "When those ports are closed, there's still someone here monitoring them," said Larry Overcast, the Sweetgrass port director for U.S. Customs. "We know when there's someone there." Recently, a Canadian man driving a stolen van put the system to the test when he crashed through the Whitlash Port of Entry, 50 mi les east of Sweetgrass. Of f icers at Sweetgrass notified the U.S. Border Patrol near Shelby. Agents pursued the suspect and made an arrest in Chester. As well as the monitors work in observing distant activity, Overcast admitted, it's not a perfect system. The words sound a little dire coming from a man who has worked this port for 20 years and now serves as the facility's director. But he's right. All someone has to do is drive around one of the gates, or approach beyond the view of the camera. What's more, anyone with access to Google can download a map of northern Montana. It's not hard to pinpoint the farm roads crossing the international boundary, out where no one else is looking. "The border is open and that's certainly an agency challenge," Overcast said. "We're always trying to evaluate how to do a better job." Compared to the southern border, the northern border is undeniably vulnerable. Its openness is fit for a movie on the unsettled West, where wide-open spaces are required to set the mood. Remote outposts like Raymond, Whitlash and Chief Mountain stand every 50 miles across Montana's northern tier. Between them, there's little to be seen. Out in the middle of what feels like nowhere, the small ports are little more than huts placed next to farm gates. They're staffed with a handful of officers with U.S. Customs. Between the ports, a small number of agents with the U.S. Border Patrol scout the terrain, looking for the unusual. This is the nation's idea of deterrence. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Really, Overcast said, it all depends on how someone chooses to enter the country when traveling illegally. Thi s year, of f icers at Sweetgrass have made their share of arrests, including three Canadian fugitives, the refusal of 658 people due to documentation issues, and the removal of at least 30 others from the country. Recently, officers made a significant drug seizure, confiscating 101,000 tablets of Ecstasy. They've found potent marijuana dubbed "B.C. bud" in fake tailpipes. In 2005, officers seized more than 73 pounds of cocaine. "We had eight illegal aliens from Mexico who thought this was a toll booth," Overcast said. "I don't think a lot of people know what all happens here at the border." Intercepting drugs is common, Overcast said, and the methods of smuggling prove as ingenious as they do stupid. But the Sweetgrass Port has seen other criminal elements as well, including the apprehension of an Indian citizen for possessing hundreds of false documents on his laptop computer. The documents included alien cards, bank statements, tax returns and acceptance letters to several universities. Investigators found that the man was selling the documents to "subjects" overseas, who then submitted them for immigration applications to the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In its entirety, the border between Canada and the lower 48 states stretches 3,995 miles. By comparison, the southern border with Mexico spans 1,933 miles. But while the southern border garners the political attention and consumes most of the nation's security resources, the northern border is, some feel, largely ignored. "So much of the focus in Washington, D.C., has been on the border to the south, and there's very little talk on the ports and the northern border," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. "We've got a huge border with Canada. It makes the Mexican border look pretty small, actually. You've got to have people on that front. We need to get that going." Overcast agreed. With more equipment and personnel, he said, Customs officers and Border Patrol agents could do more to secure the northern border, where drug smuggling and terrorism, not immigration, pose the greatest threat. "Both borders have their own vulnerabilities," Overcast said. "We've had people at this border we felt were persons of interest. The potential is every bit as real as it is on the southern border."