The U.S. National Guard is now working along America's borders as part of the war on terrorism. While a heavy security presence has long been the norm with the southern border with Mexico, it is something new for the northern border with Canada.
The presence of the National Guard along the 5,500 kilometer Canada-U.S. border is the latest in President Bush's effort to fight against terrorism. The President has activated about 700 members of the Guard for border duty. They are all reservists with regular non-military jobs.
Now into a six-month assignment, they have been sent to assist officers with the U.S. Customs, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and Border Patrol.
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and the Pentagon headquarters near Washington D.C., increased security measures have pressured the already thin resources of government agencies along the boundary. The use of the National Guard is to ease the workload and make sure the one-billion dollars of trade that crosses the border every day between the United States and Canada does not come to a grinding halt.
Pat Boettcher is in charge of the INS at the Peach Arch border crossing between Vancouver and Blaine, in Washington State. She has been assigned five soldiers. "I have very limited support staff. So, in other words, the myriad of reports and payroll procedures and personnel actions, all of those things are handled by officers," she says. "But now, I can rely on the National Guard to assist with a lot of that paper work which will allows the officers to spend more time in actual inspections and doing the things that they're more trained, better trained to do with regards to our border security."
Ms. Boettcher says that last year over 100 fugitives were apprehended and over 300 criminal aliens were denied entry at her border crossing. At the same time, more than two million cars went through her station alone. The workload increased thirty percent after September 11 when a special lane for pre-cleared frequent travellers was temporary shut down. New immigration officers will replace the National Guardsmen, who are under direct command of Ms. Boettcher, within the next few months.
The U.S. Border Patrol, which is responsible for guarding the areas between checkpoints, will also be increasing staffing levels.
John Bates is the deputy patrol chief for the 176-kilometer long border between the Pacific Ocean and the Coast Mountain range. He has been assigned a helicopter and crew for the next five and a half months. Mr. Bates says right now, the guardsmen are just getting used to the area. Although they have not encountered any adverse situations, he is confident it is only a matter of time. "I know personally that our agents are very happy to hear that they're there. It's an added tool that will help us and the agents that are working out there," he says. "We haven't had any incidents yet that I can point to and say oh, "they've helped us out on that one or helped us out on that one," but we're looking for that to happen in the next few months."
Before September 11, the United States focused most of its border personnel along its southern border with Mexico, to cut the traffic of drugs and illegal immigrants.
Mr. Bates says that the military presence is making up for a current lack of resources. But he said it is not the militarization of the longest undefended boundary in the world. "In reality, this is truly not the militarization of it. This is a short-term relief for the addition of a helicopter that we're bringing on board and also an additional pilot for us," he says. "They're not going to be conducting any arrests. They will not be doing any enforcement activities. Their role is strictly support."
Lieutenant Colonel Bret Dougherty is the commanding officer of the National Guard stationed along the border near Vancouver. A history teacher at a suburban Seattle high school in regular life, he says most of the soldiers are familiar with the border. "I think what struck most of us is the fact our border patrol, customs, and INS brethren have really been stretched thin by the extra workload brought about by September 11. So, it was interesting for us to see that and to know that we really are needed up here," he says.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States that shocked the world, both U.S. and Canada have joined force in fighting terrorism. And speculation that terrorists might try to cross the border south of Vancouver to the United States has proven to be well grounded.
One example is Palestinian born Abu Mezer, who failed to cross the western border to the United States three times but was eventually shot by New York police while trying to bomb the city's subway. U.S. authorities said he was linked to the terrorist group Hamas.