Tester wants more border personnel

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U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agriculture specialist Alberto Gonzalez and his K-9 partner Baymon find a bag of prohibited pieces of cut sugar cane in a duffel bag at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. (Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is co-sponsoring a bill to increase staffing at America’s border crossings.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, citing an internal workload model, claims that America’s ports of entry are understaffed by over 3,600 positions. Tester, along with Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., aim to fill this gap with the Border and Port Security Act.

The bill would require the agency to hire, train and assign at least 500 officers per year until the number of needed positions the model identifies is filled. It would also require Customs and Border Protection’s commissioner to identify potential equipment and infrastructure improvements for ports of entry.

“We need a comprehensive strategy to secure our borders and one of our biggest needs is good old-fashioned man power,” Tester said in a press release, “but our shorthanded ports are leaving our borders at risk. By hiring more border officers we can strengthen border security and create new jobs in communities across the Hi-Line.”

Asked how many new positions the bill could create at Montana’s ports, Tester press secretary Luke Jackson said that the Senator’s office was waiting for Customs and Border Protection to release its model, which would reveal site-specific staffing needs.

However, it’s not clear whether border crossings in Northwest Montana are starved for personnel.

“We don’t have any staffing issues,” said Art Meade, Customs and Border Protection Supervisor at the Roosville Port of Entry near Eureka. “If traffic warrants it, all the [four] lanes are open,” he told the Daily Inter Lake.

Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, who has worked with Canadian officials to reduce northbound wait times, said that “traffic coming south has generally not been any major issue.”

David Hull, executive director of the Cranbrook Chamber of Commerce in British Columbia, agrees. “Currently it’s not an issue,” he said of crossing the border, adding that he hadn’t heard of any issues with Roosville.

In his view, “the Canadian-U.S. dollar relationship really dictates the amount of people that’s crossing the border.”

But Hull also made clear that any U.S. government effort to ease southbound trips “would certainly be welcome.”

According to U.S. Bureau of Transportation statistics, over 214,000 personal vehicles and 10,000 trucks crossed through Roosville, making it one of Montana’s busiest.

Breanna Deutsch, spokesperson for Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said in an email that “while customs agents are important, Senator Daines believes this falls far short of a good solution because it doesn’t secure our border.”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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