Eyes on the border

Helena Independent Record

by Martin J. Kidston

SCOBEY – Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Paul Schneider joined U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., at the Port of Scobey on Monday during a tour of the northern border between Montana and Saskatchewan.

Accompanied by Secret Service agents, Schneider arrived shortly after noon by helicopter at the U.S. Border Patrol station in Scobey, located about 14 miles south of the Scobey Port of Entry.

Homeland Security's No. 2 man, Schneider said he was not personally familiar with the remote region of the border. But after a 90-minute flight and a tour of the Scobey facility, the Washington, D.C., official admitted his surprise at the breadth of terrain crossing the state's northern tier.

"It's a unique situation and it requires a unique solution, basically, in how you control the border," Schneider said. "It's absolutely essential to get a bird’s eye view of the ground. It will help inform the decision-making process."

Schneider's arrival in Montana kicked off a series of border tours and community hearings that began Monday morning at the Sheridan County Courthouse in Plentywood and is scheduled to end Wednesday with a Senate field hearing in Havre.

"By his own admission, (Schneider) said he would not have believed the border's rural nature unless he had seen it firsthand," Tester said. "Because of our rural nature, we have challenges at this border that are different than anywhere else."

Tester, a member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, has spent the last year advocating improvements to U.S. security along the northern border, particularly the 550 miles spanning Montana and the three Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

In that year, Tester helped pass legislation securing $3 billion for security upgrades for all U.S. ports and borders, and pushed for a series of reviews on border vulnerabilities and needed improvements.

"There's a lot of emphasis going to the southern border, and I'm not going to say that's right or wrong," Tester said during the town-hall meeting in Plentywood. "But from a security standpoint, most of the threats around the northern border revolve around terrorism, and most of the threats on the southern border revolve around immigration."

During the morning meeting, Tester took comments from area residents, many of whom do business across the northern border or have Canadian spouses.

Some in the audience asked why they had to travel to Helena, more than 500 miles away, to acquire paperwork for Canadian family members when a 24-hour port of entry sat just minutes away.

Other questions focused on green cards, citizenship and immigration reform and extended hours at several ports of entry.

"There's not an awareness in Washington of the distance in Montana," said state Rep. Julie French, D-Scobey, who spoke at the Plentywood meeting. "The other issue is fees. We saw a huge jump in passport fees. When you have a family of five in Scobey who travel across the border because they have family there, it kills us."

"My wife should have been Mexican," added Gary Steinberg, an area resident. "It would have been easier for her to get a green card."

Tester noted the concerns and later said it was good to hear from those on the ground about the issues they're concerned about.

Tester added that improved border security doesn't have to take place at the expense of smooth commerce and strong U.S.-Canadian relations.

In recent months, some Canadian officials have expressed concerns that a ramp-up in border security could stop commerce in its tracks.

"On the northern tier, there's a lot of business that goes on on both sides of the border," Tester said. "It's got to be secure, but it's also got to work, and I think we can have both."