BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Three hundred Border Patrol agents from the Buffalo Sector patrol 341 miles, from Erie, Pennsylvania to Wellesley Island, New York. That’s less than one agent per border mile, even if they were all on duty at the same time, which they’re not.
Staffing levels haven’t changed since News 4 Investigates asked the feds four years ago. The problem isn’t unique to Buffalo, according to the National Border Patrol Council, the agents’ union.
“We simply don’t have enough manpower,” Buffalo-based agent Dean Mandel told the House Homeland Security Committee in 2016.
“We only have about 300 Agents guarding the entire Northern border at any one time. I would assess that there are approximately as many Capitol Police on duty right now protecting the Capitol complex as we have on the entire 4,000 mile Northern Border,” Mandel explained.
Mandel spoke on behalf of the union, testifying, “The National Border Patrol Council believes that the current force level of 2,100 agents needs to be augmented by another 1,500 agents on our northern border.”
President Donald Trump has focused most of his attention on building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. He also wants to add 5,000 additional agents to the Southern border. Hiring and training new recruits takes at least six months. That raises union fears that, in the meantime, staff will be shuffled south.
It’s unclear whether that may happen. The union reports no directives from the Department of Homeland Security to that effect.
Tracking the threat
Ahead of the new administration, News 4 Investigates was granted access to ride along with agents from the Buffalo sector. We wanted to see the challenges they faced every day. The first spot they took us was the International Railroad Bridge in Buffalo.
That’s where we met Agent Dean Mandel. This time he was in his official capacity (and on duty), so he could not address staffing.
“All day, 24/7. We’re here,” Mandel explained.
Agents constantly patrol the rusty rails leading into Black Rock because immigrants frequently try to use the bridge to cross. “They’ll walk. They’ll ride the rail. Some ride the freight trains. Some fall off the freight trains. [It’s] really dangerous,” Mandel said.
Video obtained by News 4 Investigates from one of the agency’s hidden cameras shows someone tried jumping onto a moving train on December 26, 2016. Images showed the person hanging on as a freight train rolled toward the U.S.
Mandel offered to take us onto the bridge, so we could see how dangerous these crossings can be. Even on brutally cold winter days, people still attempt to cross. The bridge has a narrow walkway on either side of the rails. It’s barely wide enough to stand. Signs are all over the place.
“There’s also a sensor on that bridge that will go off in English, Spanish and French, telling someone to turn back,” Mandel noted. No one crosses not realizing that they’re breaking federal law.
Cameras and Agents provide the initial check at the rail bridge. Less than a mile away, teams from CBP field operations use an enormous x-ray machine to scan freight trains.
“We turn it on when the train is coming. We do scan all inbound trains which is about four to six trains daily; it uses radiation technology to see inside the train,” CBP spokesperson Aaron Bowker explained.
He says agents saw what has happening with immigrants trying to ride the rails, and felt they needed this extra layer of security. “This was looked at as a vulnerability point after 9-11. We installed the rail [x-ray] here in 2004 to scan the trains,” Bowker said.
Special challenges in the Falls
Barbed wire greets those who try crossing at the old rail bridge in Niagara Falls. “It presents a little bit of a challenge as far as some people have actually tried scale underneath the bridge, so we have to be vigilant above and below,” Agent John Marotta explained.
Agents also stand watch as Amtrak trains cross. “Customs officers will inspect the train and the passengers. It’s our job to make sure no one is trying to ride above – and in between the cars,” Agent Marotta told News 4.
Their duty in WNY can be difficult, even dangerous. Border patrol spokesperson Corey Jones admits the threats here are far different than those on the Southern U.S. border. Still, agents must remain vigilant.
“People relate to the border patrol as immigration, and we’re not just about immigration. That is part of our job. But our mission is terrorism and preventing terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States,” Jones reiterated.
Infrared cameras fill in the gaps, protecting places agents can’t be. “We have a [new] radar system that’s been implemented on Lake Erie that gives us full coverage,” Jones said. Agents expect it to be a huge help during the busy summer boating season.
“Our job is to the secure the border — whether it’s terrorism, whether it’s immigration, whether it’s a criminal organization — our job is to prevent them from doing business,” Jones said.
Your eyes and ears — and your phone — can be a part of this process. Agents have a number they want you to save in your phone. To report anything suspicious, simply call 1-800-331-0353. That number connects you with dispatchers right here in Western New York.