National guard impact on border waits remain unclear

Published on Thu, Dec 6, 2001 by Meg Olson

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National guard impact on border waits remain unclear

By Meg Olson

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced Sunday that 419 National Guard soldiers will be mobilized to man the northern border. With details still fuzzy about their role and how they will be deployed, there is concern their arrival could spell longer, not shorter, waits at local border crossings.

In a letter to defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Ashcroft wrote “maintaining heightened readiness and security have required extraordinary efforts from limited staff resources. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is seeking to supplement its existing staff temporarily in order to maintain both heightened security and legitimate international travel.” Ashcroft said that the National Guard members will be deployed at 43 ports of entry in 12 states to assist the INS with inspections.

INS assistant district director for inspections Ron Hays said the Seattle district had, in October, asked for 36 National Guard members to supplement existing INS and Border Patrol agents at all Washington ports. The information from INS national headquarters in November was that they would get 17, nine for the Peace Arch and eight for the Pacific Highway ports of entry.

The INS has already moved extra inspectors to the northern border and trained 120 border patrol agents to help with inspections. Locally, eight additional inspectors and 21 Border Patrol agents have allowed local ports to keep additional lanes open, said INS district deputy director Bob Okin. The initial detail for the extra Border Patrol agents was 60 days. “That detail is due to end in late December,” Okin said.

Following Ashcroft’s announcement, Okin said they had no information at the district level about how, when or if the national guard soldiers would be at local borders. He was also not sure if the guard members would be in addition to extra personnel now in place or if they would replace the border patrol agents at the end of the month. “Nobody has told us, and we’ve asked,” he said. A U.S. Department of Justice press release said the national guard would “augment” INS inspectors, while national media reports have said the troops would relieve border patrol agents. The department of justice did not respond to requests for clarification.

Hays said if the border patrol detail is not extended but replaced by a National Guard presence it would mean less resources for inspections. “I can use the National Guard for some things – trunk searches, as cashiers, helping with secondary – but I can’t make them immigration officers.”

INS inspectors and Border Patrol agents undergo similar 16-week training programs qualifying them to determine admission to the country. “If you give us 17 National Guard members and take away 29 immigration officers, you’ll have longer instead of shorter wait times,” Hays said.

State congressman Rick Larsen expressed the same concern in a December 4 letter to Ashcroft. “The temporary assistance of these troops are welcome at the border crossings in my district if, and only if, they are being sent to assist the currently assigned staff, not replace them,” he wrote. “The long term solution starts with greatly increasing the number of full-time trained staff at the border and investing in new technology and infrastructure.”

Okin said the local district has not yet received a budget for next year, though congress has approved additional funding and mandated a tripling of staff at the northern border. He said, if they were given the funding to increase staff today, it would be a minimum of six to eight months to recruit, train and complete security checks on the new inspectors. “You probably would not see anybody on until at least September next year,” he said.

In his Sunday announcement Ashcroft did say the National Guard will not be a military presence at the border, but will fulfill the responsibilities of the INS and Border Patrol while those agencies hire and train more staff.
“The function they serve is to facilitate the border, not fortify the border,” he said. In phase two of the National Guard deployment aircraft and intelligence personnel will be added to help the border patrol control the border in between the ports.

The National Guard deployment is linked to Canada-U.S. border management plan, signed in Ottawa Monday by Ashcroft, Canadian solicitor general Lawrence MacAulay and immigration minister Elinor Caplan. The agreement provides for more shared information and expanded cooperation between the two countries’ law enforcement agencies. Canada and the U.S. will also work to coordinate visa requirements and Canada will deploy more immigration staff abroad to identify potential terrorist threats.

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