United States Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) has been hard at work in the congressional halls of Washington D.C. since 2013 to find ways to assist and improve the lives of North Dakota residents.
By Melissa Anderson
One such endeavor was a bi-partisan effort to bring attention to the needs that the northern border has in keeping residents and the country secure.
“There is going to be a hyper focus on the southern border which we absolutely need to do better down there, but we cannot ignore the northern border, and we have been working on this since the proposals on comprehensive immigration reform, which in my opinion, did not adequately address the challenges of the northern border,” Heitkamp said.
Senator Heitkamp worked alongside Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), a fellow member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, to create a bill that would assess and strengthen American security along the 5,500 mile long northern border. The bill received unanimous support before being signed into law in early December.
“While meeting with the dedicated border agents and officers who serve in incredibly remote locations like Portal and Pembina, many told me about the difficulty they face in recruiting and retaining the workforce they need to keep our communities safe. I heard their concerns loud and clear, and with this new law, we can begin bolstering security along the longest common law border in the world by giving them the tools and resources to keep our communities and families strong and safe,” Heitkamp said when the bill passed.
Heitkamp is now looking towards the implementation of the bill known as the Northern Border Security Review Act that will require agencies to conduct comprehensive reviews and examinations of how to strengthen security along the more remote areas of the northern border by looking at specific issues such as:
• Recruiting and retaining border security officials to cover the northern border, including the more remote areas.
• Determining tools that border security officials need to effectively combat drug and human trafficking.
• Identifying technology that could expand the reach of border agents.
• Finding vulnerabilities in cooperation between Canadian, state, county, local, and tribal law enforcement.
“What this means for North Dakota is that they are going to take a look at technology, personnel and resources, how to better manage the northern border in ways that will attract individuals to the northern border to make it fully staffed,” Heitkamp explained.
Customs and Border Protection has already begun the assessment on the northern border, which has not been done since 2011. While the Northern Border Security Review Act did not provide any direct funding to the department to complete the assessment, Aaron Heitke, Chief Patrol Agent at the U.S. Border Patrol Grand Forks Sector, stated, “By providing assessments of the threats our nation faces along the northern border and the technology tools and recruitment resources to help overcome them, Senator Heitkamp’s bill will help make sure we get the support we need to face challenges such as terrorism and drug trafficking so we can keep our communities safe.”
The northern border has 120 border crossings, many of which are located near small cities like Langdon and in highly rural areas like Cavalier County. The crossings are used daily with approximately 300,000 people and $910 million in trade traveling between the United States and Canada. With that in mind, Heitkamp views this as an opportunity to continue to build trade relations between the U.S. and Canada through collaborative agreements. One way to ensure that trade between the two countries flourishes is to make crossing the border easier and faster with appropriate equipment and, of course, the necessary amount of personnel.
“This is a great step forward in bringing attention to the northern border, and I think that given the makeup of the homeland security committee, where about half of them represent states along the northern border, we have laid down a place holder,” Heitkamp said.
With the focus on staffing the northern border, it should be noted that the recent federal hiring freeze does not affect the hiring of law enforcement such as border patrol agents. Heitkamp and some of her fellow senators are encouraging the Department of Homeland Security to hire locally along the northern border rather than trying to bring officers from other parts of the country to the areas.
“We are pushing homeland security very hard to think about hiring locally,” Heitkamp said, “ To me, the best way to guarantee that we have a steady supply of people on the northern border is to hire people who live there already, who have family and social networks there.”
Heitkamp believes that there is interest from those already living along the border or who are familiar with rural living in working for the border patrol or at customs. With enough interest, the call to homeland security to hire locally will be justified and heard and not only provide the necessary personnel but a means of ensuring continued access to potential agents.
“I think that is the surest way to have a workforce that has consistency on the northern border,” Heitkamp said, ”The problem that we have right now is a lot of the people in border patrol want to work the southern border and don’t want to work the northern border. So getting people who say ‘I exclusively want to work the northern border’ is a logical next step for their hiring challenges.”
Heitkamp also addressed the need for surveillance technology to adequately monitor the northern border. It was noted that along the northern border there are vast stretches of wide open country as well as areas of heavy cover that provide ample opportunity for illegal crossing.
“We have areas on the northern border that are wide open and spots where border patrol does not have radio contact with anyone, and that’s why we have Stonegarden, which is a grant program with local law enforcement,” Heitkamp said.
Heitkamp believes that with the press on the southern border, the traffic that occurs at that border will shift to the north, which is not prepared to deal with that at this time due to inadequate staffing and lack of technology to assist in monitoring the border.
“Hiring more personnel, being fully staffed, and having technology such as unmanned aircraft could be hugely beneficial,” Heitkamp stated.
The assessment should be completed by Customs and Border Protection sometime between April and May. Heitkamp will thoroughly review what has been found and begin the next step which will be working with Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security along with her fellow senators to determine how best to address what is found. Heitkamp’s history of working across the aisle will continue as she will make sure to address the assessment in a bi-partisan way, to not only advocate for the necessary resources but also their implementation, whether its technology or personnel.