They used to call it - rather boastfully - the longest undefended border in the world.
That was then.
Before epidemic drug use. Before waves of desperate foreign nationals began mortgaging their futures to criminal syndicates, which today collect multimillions of dollars by smuggling human cargo onto American soil. Before last December, when Ahmed Ressam was caught driving a car packed with explosives from British Columbia into Washington State.
Though the border between Canada and the United States remains, in practical terms, the longest unguarded border in the world, the US government is no longer proud of the fact.
Nervous is a better word.
It has enough trouble on the southern border. Now its much leaner northern defenses are being tested, as smugglers of illegal immigrants and drugs discover the paths of least resistance.
"In the past the [northern] border wasn't an issue," says Steve Garrett, assistant chief of the Border Patrol's Spokane sector in Washington State. "Really, the border was more of an afterthought."
In fact, until two years ago, most Border Patrol agents focused on "interior" issues: apprehending undocumented farmworkers, checking jails for criminal aliens, raiding workplaces where illegals worked.
But two years ago, the Border Patrol and its parent agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), rewrote priorities in response to congressional mandates.
The new strategy redirects most agents to the border - especially to the vast spaces between official ports of entry.
The problem: The plan's final phase, which focuses on the northern border, has not yet been implemented.
"Resources have traditionally gone to the southern border, because that's where the problems are," says Ray Ortega, chief agent for the Spokane sector. He notes that his previous post, the El Centro sector, employed roughly 1,000 agents to police 62 miles of the California/Mexico border.
"In the Spokane sector, we have about 350 miles of border, and we have about 30 agents. As that becomes knowledge in Mexico...." His voice trails off.
Already, he says, organized gangs use Canada as a staging area to smuggle increasing numbers of Chinese, Korean, and Mexican nationals into the US. Because Canada does not require visas for entry, it is easy for smugglers to bring their clientele into the dominion; and because the defenses of the northern boundary bear little resemblance to the imposing fortifications along the southern border, the smugglers here enjoy much better odds.
Then there's narcotics trafficking. A backpack of "B.C. bud" - a potent kind of marijuana - is worth a small fortune once it gets from British Columbia to the US, often via trails once used to smuggle whiskey during the Prohibition era.
By INS estimates, about 8,000 agents are stationed along America's southern border. On the north, the count is but 300.
"And that's not really accurate," charges Keith Olson, a senior agent in the Blaine sector, which covers the area north of Seattle. "The real figure is 289 agents ... from the corner of Blaine to the end of Maine.
"They've got more agents assigned to one shift, in one night, at Imperial Beach, down at San Diego," he says.f
Mr. Olson, a veteran of both borders and president of the patrol agents' local union, says the agents on the northern front face difficult, if not impossible, challenges. Currently, he says, staffing on any given shift in the Blaine sector boils down to this: "Two or three guys to patrol 150 miles of border" - some of the most rugged terrain on the 49th Parallel.
"It's still an unguarded border. We're getting hammered by [syndicates smuggling] Koreans right now," he grouses.
Agents are winning plenty of battles: This year has already seen 1,308 arrests in the Spokane sector, including the July 8 apprehension of 21 South Koreans who had crossed illegally into Washington's Okanogan Valley.
But on the northern border, agents are often working alone or with one partner, no matter how many trespassers they confront.
"You only got two hands," Olson says. "You catch what you can catch."
To help compensate for its thin ranks on the Canadian line, the INS attempted recently to close its Livermore sector, which oversees 196,000 square miles in Nevada and California, then transfer 10 agents to Blaine sector and 15 to Spokane sector. But before that could occur, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) blocked the closure and the redeployment remains in limbo.
Washington Sen. Slade Gorton (R) attached an amendment to the Border Patrol's appropriations bill that directs the INS to stop pulling agents, airplanes, and other resources from the northern border to shore up besieged southern defenses, something that occurs routinely.
"We call it the forgotten border," says Lew Moore, an aide to Rep. Jack Metcalf (R), whose district includes Blaine sector.
Meanwhile, the robust economy has made recruiting new agents difficult (starting pay is $35,000).
Letting technology do the work
So the patrol is turning to high-tech surveillance gear. Ortega says the devices include seismic monitors that detect footsteps, metallic sensors that react to jewelry, and infrared sensors.
In their backwoods battle of stealth and wits, patrol agents move these devices from location to location, keeping tabs on remote logging roads, hiking trails - even some of the creeks that crisscross the border. When one of the surveillance units detects activity, it sends a signal to that sector's headquarters, where a dispatcher relays the information to patrol agents, who then must race to intercept the intruders.
"By deploying technology, we can make the agents that we do have more effective," said Virginia Kice, spokswoman for the INS's Western Region. "Everyone recognizes that the northern border is a very different animal, and will require unique solutions. I think it's a work-in-progress."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society