Larsen, Cantwell pledge support for beefier border

Published on Thu, Sep 20, 2001 by Meg Olson

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Larsen, Cantwell pledge support for beefier border

By Meg Olson

“The world changed on September 11. It changed our lives immensely and things may be changed forever, but that doesn’t mean we stop,” said U.S. representative Rick Larsen standing in the shadow of a long line of trucks at the Pacific Highway port of entry. “We need to keep our borders open but with a heightened sense of security. We need to get back to our business in America.”

Larsen and U.S. senator Maria Cantwell toured local border facilities Monday and pledged their support for the efforts of customs, immigration and border patrol staff to tighten the U.S/Canada border, yet keep traffic moving. “This is the highest level of awareness for U.S. customs and immigration,” Cantwell said. “People are doing their jobs. Clearly we’ll be rethinking our national security issues. There’s going to be a delicate balance between security and consumer interest.”

The federal legislators promised to work for more funding to get the manpower and technology needed to keep travelers and trade under heightened scrutiny while crossing the northern border . “We’re going to make sure there are dollars available for increased activity at the northern border,” Larsen said.

Larsen said he would be drafting a letter to President George Bush asking that local borders get a portion of the $40 million congress earmarked for rebuilding after last week’s attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. “Special attention needs to be paid to the northern border,” he said.

Larsen and other members of the Northern Border Caucus, a group of legislators from districts along the border, are asking for funding to increase the number of agents along the northern border, improve infrastructure at key ports of entry and expedite the implementation of technological alternatives to lengthy inspections. “We’re going to be looking at it this week and work on trying to expedite things,” Cantwell said. “There’s infrastructure here. You could move more people if you had more personnel.”

Some relief may already be on the way. Both the senate and house versions of the appropriations bills specifically identify the northern border as a sore spot in need of an infusion of cash and manpower. The senate bill, which passed unanimously September 13, includes $25 million to increase the number of customs agents at the northern border, and language directing the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to put 25 percent of new agents on the northern border. House bills ask for $15 million for new customs agents and direction to send some of the 570 new border patrol positions north. Those bills will now go into conference to work out differences between the house and the senate versions before becoming law.

Putting bodies at borders is only one way to keep things moving while keeping the country safe, Larsen said. “We have a point of entry system now,” he said. “It’s important we have a point of origin system as well.” He said collaboration between agencies on both sides of the border and more shared information was needed. Increased use of technology would also help track potential threats. “We need more information than people pulling up to a lane,” Cantwell said. “Hopefully we can develop a technology system so that as cars and people pull up here, information is available.”

Security concerns have hit some local commuters and truckers hard, leading to long lines at the border. The PACE commuter lane program has also been put on hold and is not likely to reopen under tighter national security rules. “I think the PACE lane will be closed indefinitely, and I think it’s a prudent move,” Larsen said, adding the INS needed to address security concerns that led to the PACE closure and take measures to put an alternative in place. “It’s important the INS move forward and not isolate communities like Point Roberts,” he said.

In all border communities, the drop in traffic as people stay away from long lines has hit people hard. “Here in Blaine there’s nobody on the street. I’ve had two customers today,” said Mary Lee Hill of the Pastime Tavern. “The Canadians are not coming down, and they’re 90 percent of my business. To eliminate PACE really hurt. I’m going to cut back on my hours and my staff, it’s all I can do. We were already in trouble before and this just slammed the door.” Hill said that while her business was suffering she understood the need for tighter borders. “There are more important things going on right now,” she said.

INS spokesperson Ron Hays said other commuter lanes in the country with more high-tech security than PACE remained open. The SENTRI system on the southern border, has transponders on vehicles which trigger database records of program enrollees. All participants are fingerprinted, photographed and carry special identification cards, and the cost is $125 per person. Those lanes remain open.

“We had concerns with PACE prior to September 11 and those concerns are still there,” Hays said. “Of all the systems PACE has the least capability of establishing that the person in the lane is the person enrolled.”
The NEXUS system, a commuter pilot program in Port Huron, Michigan run jointly by Canadian and U.S. authorities, has also been suspended. The program was developed using dollars allocated by Congress in 1998 to expand PACE, Hays said. A version of the NEXUS program had been intended for the Pacific Highway but that project is now on hold. “All this has been placed on hold pending a review of the technology,” Hays said. He would not speculate on how much money would be needed to replace local PACE lanes with commuter programs that answered INS security concerns, or how long the border would stay at a high alertness level. “As long as we need to,” he said.

On the Canadian side, the CANPASS commuter program is also suspended with the Canadian border in a heightened state of alert.
Canada Customs representative Paula Shore said travellers could expect more thorough inspections but wouldn’t say what measures were in place or for how long. “We’re not giving away any secrets,” she said..

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