Larsen taps into border realities

Published on Thu, Jan 17, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Larsen taps into border realities

By Meg Olson

When the first Point Roberts students boarded the school bus before dawn last Thursday, they found some seats already taken. U.S. Representative Rick Larsen, accompanied by school superintendent Gordan Dolman, were along for the ride.

“You just have to get in a mindset, as a family, that this is what you do every day,” said U.S. Representative Rick Larsen after spending more than two hours on the Point Roberts school bus, starting at the Blaine bus barn at 6:30 a.m. “The kids on the bus have been quite creative in learning to use the time, whether it’s reading, sharing toys or talking.” While students on the bus now bypass border lines, that wasn’t the case in the days following September 11 and Larsen said keeping the school bus trip as short as possible for Point Roberts students needed to be a priority.

Larsen got off the bus at 8:45 a.m. and reported to the Peace Arch port of entry for duty as a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization inspector. “I wanted to experience first-hand what it’s like to be an INS inspector after September 11,” he said. “To have to ask the questions, search the car and make a decision in 90 seconds is difficult enough. I don’t know how they did it before September 11 in 8 seconds.”

After a brief training Larsen donned a bulletproof vest and INS jacket and headed out to the inspection booths. Like other INS inspectors, Larsen worked a half hour in the inspection lanes followed by a half hour inside. Before lunch time he had covered quite a few bases, checking proof of citizenship, inspecting trunks and tackling more complicated immigration questions at the counter inside.

When it was all over, Larsen said he had a better understanding of the puzzle inspectors face in each vehicle. “You’re looking for something that’s not consistent,” he said. “Checking what they tell you with what’s in the vehicle.” Larsen also learned the wide scope of an inspector’s powers at the border to make that rapid-fire determination of whether a person should enter the country. “You can pretty much do whatever you want to do to whomever. You just have to temper that with some common sense,” said INS district assistant director for inspections Ron Hays.

Finally, he got a broader picture of an inspector’s day, from 12-hour days, six hours in a booth and 300 cars, to the brighter moments at America’s gateway. “This can be a very satisfying job because you’re really doing something useful,” he said, “even if it’s just saying hello.”

During Larsen’s shift at the Peace Arch, travelers waited no more than 20 minutes, but Larsen said a normal, pre September 11 volume would swamp the border at existing staffing levels. “We’re asking for INS headquarters to send 70 more customs and 70 INS inspectors,” he said. “We knock on that door every day and we’ll keep making noise.”

The days of the eight-second inspection are over, according to Larsen, and the high level of scrutiny inspectors are now turning on each vehicle is needed. “For security’s sake we need to have that kind of protection.” However, Larsen doesn’t think more security needs to mean less mobility. “It’s a matter of full staffing in every booth, getting the technology in place so NEXUS can pre-clear frequent travelers, and more coordination between Canadian and U.S. agencies. If we just keep things the way they are we’re going to continue to have problems.”

Once staffing levels are up at the border, Larsen said he thinks cross-border traffic and the business it brings will be back. “It’s an if you build, it they will come scenario,” he said. “Show people we’re willing to make the commitment, that it won’t be an hour wait, and those numbers will come back up.”.


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