Havre Daily News/Lindsay Brown
Brenna Nienast, chief patrol agent of the U.S. Border Patrol's Havre Sector, discusses Wednesday morning the changes in Border Patrol she has seen throughout her career before her upcoming retirement.
Brenna Neinast, chief patrol agent of the Havre Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol, said two days before her retirement that she has seen a lot of the country and many changes — and improvements — in her agency’s operations during 27 years of service.
“The agency has been wonderful to me. It has been a wonderful career,” Neinast, who is retiring Friday, said Wednesday. “It’s been challenging at times, and I have had a lot of opportunities to go places and to do things and to learn and have experiences that most other people never would experience.
“And I have lived all over the country as a result of the U.S. Border Patrol and experienced completely different cultures all over the country, so it’s been truly a tremendous opportunity for me,” she added.
She said the Patrol had just announced that former Havre Sector Deputy Chief Patrol Agent Christopher Richards is returning to Havre to take over as patrol chief.
The Havre Sector houses Border Patrol operations on 452 miles of U.S.-Canadian border. The primary sector office is just south of Havre, near the Havre Ice Dome, while the new patrol station, which opened in 2009, is north of Havre Middle School on 16th Avenue West.
Neinast followed in her father’s footsteps with her career in law enforcement, joining the Patrol in 1986, two years after he retired from the agency following 28 years of service.
She was the first female agent assigned to the Tucson, Ariz., station, and over the years, served as supervisory border patrol agent, watch commander and patrol agent in charge. In 2001, she was selected as assistant chief patrol agent of the Detroit Sector and in 2002 became the deputy chief patrol agent of the New Orleans Sector and served there during CBP’s response to hurricanes Ivan, Katrina and Rita.
Neinast came to Havre as chief patrol agent in 2005.
She said Wednesday that she has seen major changes in the agency in her 27 years of service, including a massive increase in size.
When she joined the patrol in 1986 — a member of a class of 191 — the agency had fewer than 5,000 agents. Now it has more than 21,000.
The Havre Sector has seen an increase of nearly three times the number of agents since she took over as chief in 2005, Neinast said.
Refocusing on border security
A significant portion of the increase in the number of agents came after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, which has led to some changes in the focus of the agency, Neinast said.
She said that previously, Border Patrol agents were kind of jack-of-all-trades for law enforcement. Guarding the borders was a primary duty but agents were spread out across the country and had a bifurcated mission enforcing border security and enforcing security in the interior part of the United States.
“We were dispersed,” Neinast said. “We were kind of everywhere, and 9/11 really made us understand that we needed to be focused back on the border, so we deployed and made sure that our focus was truly on border security at that point.”
Part of that change was a massive reorganization of government in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which has led to other changes in the patrol as well.
“When that happened, there were significant changes in the structure of the government and how we did business,” she said.
Neinast said part of the shift in focus included Homeland Security Investigations of Immigration and Customs Enforcement taking over the interior security work Border Patrol had done, but it also shifted how the agency was funded.
When it was part of the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service — which was disbanded with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security — Congress made appropriations to INS and that department made allocations to Border Patrol, Neinast said.
When it became part of the Customs and Border Protection component of Homeland Security, Border Patrol began receiving its own direct congressional appropriations.
An increase in modern technology
Along with the change in funding has come a change in technology. Neinast said the patrol has been able to upgrade what it uses, ranging from its aircraft to cameras and communications equipment.
“When I came to the agency we were extremely low-tech,” she said.
With the changes in the last decade, the Patrol has taken a new look at that issue.
“With the advent of 9/11, our funding stream changed completely. The Border Patrol was then funded specifically and solely by Congress through their own appropriations,” she said. “And, when that happened, we were able to start investing in technology that we had never truly invested much in before. … After 9/11 we started looking at truly integrated technology systems as solutions to the border security problem.”
That included aircraft. After 9/11, Neinast said, the different air forces of different agencies such as Border Patrol and Customs and Immigration were pooled together and reallocated to the agencies.
The Havre Sector hadn’t had much for air power, but in 2006 its air branch was upgraded, with Blackhawk helicopters and air-to-air assault aircraft included.
Increasing local presence
Neinast said, along with the increase in the number of agents, a focus of the Border Patrol is to increase community awareness of its presence and its mission.
Part of that is to help with recruitment. For example, a goal is to hire Montanans as agents to work in Montana.
The last batch of nationwide hiring ended with a 1-to-40 ratio of applicants becoming agents so hiring 6,000 agents nationwide takes 240,000 applicants, Neinast said.
“In order to do that, you have to be known in order to get those recruitment numbers,” she said.
The effort to increase awareness and cooperation includes a border liaison program that helps the Patrol communicate with other agencies along the border, including local law enforcement, citizens academies and other efforts to educate local people about what the Patrol does and how it does it, and reaching out to farmers and ranchers along the border and partnering with them to secure the border.
“We’re still not staffed to be everywhere all the time,” Neinast said. “We do need and depend considerably upon citizens making reports.”
Future of the patrol — and retirement
Neinast said the focus again has shifted a bit, especially with the current economic climate.
Under President George W. Bush, after 9/11, the successful major push occurred to increase the number of agents. That has declined in the last few years.
“When you’re looking at sequestration, when you’re looking at economic issues, it’s hard to speak to expansion,” Neinast said. “One of the things that the Border Patrol is doing right now is we’re looking at making sure we’re right-sized, that all the offices that we have at various places are staffed at the level they need to be to deal with the specific threat to that area.”
She said even if the issue of sequestration — across-the-board cuts mandated when the congressional Supercommittee failed to reach an agreement on budget cuts in 2011 — is not resolved by its latest March 1 deadline, the Patrol is ready.
“Actually, the agency has a plan in place, and we will do what we need to do,” she said.
As for her, Neinast said she is ready to spend more time with her family.
Part of that will be spending time with her parents in Arizona. On top of that, she said, she has five grandchildren in states throughout the southwest she needs to visit at least once a year.
“So, I’m going to be busy taking care of family,” Neinast said.