Border Patrol staffing still a concern

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – If every agent stationed at the U.S. Border Patrol’s Buffalo Sector Headquarters was on duty at the same time, each one would still have to cover more than one-mile alone.

That’s the sobering reality along western New York’s northern border with Canada. The sector covers 342 border miles from Erie, PA to Wellesley Island, north of Watertown, NY.

Are there enough agents patrolling and protecting western New York?

Technology is crucial

Border Patrol agreed to allow News 4 cameras inside the region’s only border communications center, a place few get to see. Agent Matthew Bitterman explained, “It’s basically dispatch for the border patrol.”

Dispatchers are in charge of tracking agents’ movements while also monitoring a sophisticated network of high definition cameras. The cameras constantly scan the skies and watch the water.

“If an agent says, ‘Hey I’m watching that boat or a vehicle,’ they can pan [over], look at the boat and try to get a hull number,” Bitterman said. Dispatchers and communications specialists can “see what’s crossing, what’s not crossing, and where they’re going to or coming from.”

Agent Bitterman wouldn’t say how many of those cameras are in place along the border. The camera locations are also considered too sensitive to release.

One that’s very visible to the naked eye is located on the western end of Grand Island. Agents did show News 4 how the cameras work.

“There’s a daytime mode and a nighttime mode allowing us to see things that we wouldn’t be able to on the river,” Bitterman noted.

Congressman concerned

Congressman Brian Higgins, (D) District 26, agreed to talk with News 4 about the Border Patrol’s work in western New York. He’s a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. He believes there are not enough agents stationed here, and he questions whether cameras can make up for a lack in manpower.

“I think cameras are part of the overall strategy, but you’re right, they cannot just replace manpower because what if you see something on those cameras that requires an investigation? What you’re looking for is suspicious activity.”

Congressman Higgins says it’s important to remember the recent foiled Canadian terror plot. Authorities say suspects were working together to attack a passenger train that travels between Toronto and New York City.

“We’re seeing from the thwarted train terrorist plot there was an Al Qaeda presence involved some way. We also know from our previous work on the committee that Hezbollah, which is a terrorist organization, acts as a proxy for Iran, Syria, and Venezuela.”

Higgins says Hezbollah “has a presence not only in 15 American cities but also in four major Canadian cities.”

Immigrants walking, riding the rails

Increasingly, Border Patrol agents are seeing smugglers using the international railroad bridges. News 4 reported on an incident in March when a man from Kosovo crossed the Whirlpool Bridge in Niagara Falls. A man and woman from Guatemala tried crossing less than a day later. All of them were arrested.

It’s easy to understand why the railroad bridges are popular.

Bitterman notes, “The entire border the Buffalo sector patrols is water.” When you’re trying to sneak in “you’re going to find the fastest, shortest route you can take.”

Agent Bitterman agreed to escort News 4 onto the international railroad bridge in Black Rock. The bridge is much more narrow than it appears from a distance.

“As we start to get closer, it kind of narrows in with the fences.” He reminded us, “You don’t realize how far a rail car sticks out over those tracks — how much wider it is.”

Bitterman says he’s heard of instances where immigrants have been brushed and injured by trains.

When you see the small space, you get a sense how desperate immigrants must be. The railroad bridge is full of holes where your feet can slip and become trapped.

Until fairly recently, agents inspected rail cars as they crossed into the U.S. Now an HD camera network helps agents with that process.

Electronic speakers positioned on the Canadian side also warn those who try to cross.

“Some of the bridges do have alarms that will tell you you’re entering illegally. They’ll have alarms that will go off.” He says, no one could miss the warnings. “You know exactly what you’re doing and where you’re going.”

Citizens have a role

Because of the staffing situation, Bitterman admits, “An agent can’t be everywhere all the time.” He suggests citizens are crucial to strengthening our own security.

“They’ve lived here their entire lives. They’ve lived on the water. They know what’s unique, what’s suspicious and what’s not suspicious.”

If you spot something suspicious that you think should be investigated, you can call Border Patrol directly at 1-800-331-0353. Your call will be answered by agents at the Buffalo sector headquarters.

“Our goal is to secure America’s borders. That’s the most important thing to us,” Bitterman concluded.

Agents are determined to keep terrorists and their weapons off American soil.

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