MARTIN J. KIDSTON Independent Record SCOBEY
The U.S. Border Patrol's new station sits on a hill east of Scobey, surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and a long garage that resembles a mini-storage facility. For those who call this station home, the new campus marks an improvement over the one-room shack it replaced in 2007. It's just one of several new Border Patrol stations planned or recently completed along the Hi-Line. An influx of federal funding, coupled with an aggressive recruitment campaign and the slow but steady redeployment of agents from the southern border to the north, has given the Border Patrol a new profile on Montana's northern tier. Improvements to infrastructure and growth have come a l o n g way s i n c e t h e Independent Record first toured the northern border last September. A report by the Government Accountability Office followed shortly after, also pointing out security shortfalls that jeopardized the nation, from drug trafficking to the threat of terrorists crossing the border undetected. While improvements are still being made, the changes have made it easier for the Border Patrol to carry out its new mission, one that was redefined after Homeland Security created U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2003. "Before, we were enforcing immigration laws throughout multistate regions," said Craig Jeffrey, an assistant chief Border Patrol agent assigned to Scobey. "We've got a whole other mission now and that's to control the border." New and improved The new station at Scobey, which Deputy Secretary of Home land Se cur i ty Paul Schneider toured last month, offers room for intelligence officers and a canine program. A conference room lends a diplomatic feel. The roomy interior can easily accommodate more personnel. Additional agents are expected to fill empty offices here in the coming years as the Border Patrol embarks on its new recruiting effort. The program looks to hire agents from Montana, train them on the southern border, and assign them to stations along the Hi-Line. Brenna Neinast, Border Patrol chief for the Havre Sector a multistate region extending from the border south into Colorado said recruiting efforts and a growing work force have helped close security loopholes found in a series of federal reports dating back to 2003. Starting that year, the GAO set out to inform the Senate Finance Committee on the vulnerabilities terrorists could exploit by entering the country. Part of the focus fell on the northern border, where undercover agents found that terrorists, smugglers, illegal immigrants and fugitives could cross undetected into the U.S. One group of agents successfully transported mock radioactive material across the border. The stunt made national news and further gained the attention of lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Ove r the pas t year, Customs and Border Protection has worked hard to correct the problem, starting with a buildup of manpower across the northern tier. As of April, roughly 1,128 agents were assigned to the northern border, according to one GAO report. It's an improvement over the 972 agents in place last summer when the Independent Record toured the border, and the 340 agents who worked the border in 2001. The growth, Neinast said, is expected to continue over the next two years. By the end of 2010, as many as 2,212 agents should be in place along the 5,000-mile-long northern U.S. border. More than 330 of them are expected to patrol the Havre Sector, which spans 545 miles. That's almost as many as were on the entire northern border before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "I'm anticipating adding more than 25 agents here at Scobey," Neinast said. "I anticipate them being in a crowded situation at some point. But that will be several years out." Neinast makes it clear that the number of agents staffed at various locations isn't based solely on cases, numbers or statistics. With its mission to maintain operational control of the border, the assignments are based on how effectively agents can respond to the border if needed. "We've recently redefined the station zones to base it more on geography than county lines," Neinast said. "In doing that, we think we gained more operational control, and that's going to cause additional shifting, and we'll have to decide what the staffing levels will be and where." Customs suffers While the Border Patrol is enjoying modest growth and improvements to its infrastructure in Montana, officers with U. S. Customs find themselves in a different situation. They're working longer hours to cover vacancies and staffing old facilities. Loren Timmerman, president of Chapter 231 of the National Treasury Employees Union, said the problem has become so grave that overworked Customs officers are suffering from "morale problems, fatigue and safety concerns." Th e De p a r tme n t o f Homeland Security's "One Face at the Border" initiative hasn't helped, Timmerman said. Launched in 2003, the initiative was designed to merge immigration, customs and agricultural functions into one position, creating the modern Customs officer. Timmerman claims that the changes have weakened the quality of passenger and cargo inspections conducted at several ports of entry. Combined with a lack of resources and training, the number of illegal drug and cargo seizures at the Port of Sweetgrass Montana's busiest port has declined nearly 59 percent since 2000, he said. "The first challenge is the lack of resources and training to do our jobs effectively," Timmerman said. "A large number of CBP officer vacancies remain unfilled. The ratio of supervisors to staff has increased dramatically at the northern border, aggravating the vacancy situation." Timmerman brought the staffing issue to the attention of the Independent Record last November, saying several Montana ports often run on what he referred to as a skeleton crew a shortage that puts officers at risk. Annual training, he added, may be skipped because the port can't spare the employee. During a border tour in early July, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., also noted the staffing shortages at several Montana ports. He observed the older Customs buildings still in use at some locations, such as the Port of Scobey, which was built in the 1970s as a temporary station. Michele James, director of Seattle Field Operations for U. S. Customs and Border Protection, admitted that her sector has locations that "could use infrastructure upgrades," particularly the Port of Scobey. James also acknowledged the staffing issue, but said she would have to put pen to paper to come up with the number of officers needed to fully staff the border within her sector. "We have enough staffing certainly to open doors and do what we need to do," said James, who oversees a sector nearly stretching from Seattle to the North Dakota line. "We could always use additional officers out there. I would never turn down another officer position. "But I'll readily admit that with our limited government resources, we try to leverage our personnel the best we can." Larry Overcast, director of the Sweetgrass Port of Entry, agreed with James, saying several state ports may be shorthanded. Employees are being asked to work longer hours to cover vacancies, he said, just as they would at any business. But while the staffing levels are short, Overcast said they will soon improve. The vacancies are authorized to be filled and officials are looking to hire. "I've got two starting here on the 28th (of July)," Overcast said. "We have 10 currently in training at the academy. The people are in the pipeline, they're just not here yet."