The September 11 attacks left Americans feeling vulnerable, especially to terrorists who come into the United States illegally. That vulnerability has raised new concerns about the openness of our borders with Mexico and Canada. VOA-TV’s Craig Fitzpatrick looks at the problem of security between Canada and the state of Vermont, where efforts are underway to reduce our northern exposure.
The U.S.-Canadian border has been called the longest undefended border in the world. And contrary to poet Robert Frost’s famous line that “good fences make good neighbors,” Americans and Canadians have been good neighbors without the fences. But since the September 11 attacks both countries have beefed-up their security.
For Chuck Foss, an assistant chief with the Border Patrol in Vermont, the threat of terrorism is all too real.
“It was kind of an awakening for everybody, for Americans, that terrorism can strike home,” he says. “It’s not just something we see on TV or read about in the newspaper, unfortunately it’s here.”
Since the September 11 attacks, inspectors at this port of entry in Vermont are asking a few more questions and searching every car for anything illegal. In spite of the security measures, more than 99 percent of the people who come to this port are admitted. And then there are the trucks, more 10,000 a month at this border crossing.
“Since September 11, clearly our focus is looking for anything that’s related to terrorism, whether that would be persons inappropriate or ineligible persons to enter the U.S., which is part of the immigration function, or whether that would be some kind of weapon or weapon of mass destruction,” says Craig Jehle, the head of U.S. Customs at this port in Vermont.
It’s easy to image possible scenarios – a dirty nuclear suitcase-bomb concealed in the undercarriage of a truck or terrorists hiding in pockets of cargo. Only a small percentage of the trucks are fully searched. Some are given only a cursory look.
Craig Jehle says that about one truck in 10,000 crossing this border is found to be carrying something illegal. When Customs inspectors do find illegal aliens hiding in a shipment of goods, they’re turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“Basically, we’re looking to ensure that people have the proper documentation to come to the United States, under immigration law,” says James McMillan, who is the INS port director at this facility. “That they don’t have any criminal histories that might make them inadmissible or that they aren’t coming to do work or things of that nature without having the proper work authorizations prior to arriving at the border.”
Mr. McMillan agrees that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers would have been admitted at this port because they had legal visas. When illegal aliens are denied access at one of America’s front doors, they sometimes try to sneak in the back way, through the woods for example, a farmer’s pasture, or in a boat. But watching the woods and waterways is the U.S. Border Patrol.
“Unfortunately we’re dealing with those who have chosen not to enter by legal means,” says Chuck Foss, assistant chief with the Border Patrol. “So anyone that crosses that border between ports of entry has effectively entered the United States illegally. And then they have to deal with us.”
To help them catch those people, the Border Patrol has begun to rely on high-tech equipment. Cameras keep an eye on back roads and waterways. And infrared sensors hidden in the trees can detect anybody moving through the woods.
Stealing across the border is a game of chance. Some are willing to play the odds. The government can’t cover all the bases. But these officers will soon be getting extra help from the president and Congress. Legislation, recently approved, provides for more agents and more high-tech equipment.
America prides itself in being an open and free society, but since Sept. 11 this freedom has been tempered by a need for tighter security.
And for the men and women working along our northern border, the job of protecting America from terrorism requires even more vigilance.