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This border door wide open to U.S.
Sunday, October 30, 2005 By CARA ANNA Associated Press Writer

ST. REGIS MOHAWK RESERVATION, N.Y. - As he lies in bed listening to smugglers on the river, Andrew Thomas wonders how much homeland security $5,000 can buy.

Thomas is the tribal police chief who patrols a geographic hiccup, the only Indian reservation that straddles America’s northern border. Part of the St. Regis Mohawk reservation is in America, part is in Canada, and a river and several islands fall in between, making these 12 miles of rural New York some of the country’s most popular for smuggling.

As the U.S. government tries harder to secure its borders, this is one door that remains wide open.

Tribal residents don’t like outside officials poking around, so Thomas and his officers, all three of them per shift, are America’s first line of defense. For their efforts, they get $5,000 in homeland security money a year.

“Pennies,� Thomas says.

The night they got nothing

But better than nothing, which they got in 2002 and 2003. At night, the St. Lawrence River hums with the sounds of smugglers slipping from one side of the reservation to the other in their stripped-down boats. They carry marijuana, Ecstasy, money, human cargo and, for Thomas, more than a little frustration.

After dark, he leaves policing of the river to the nearby U.S. Border Patrol station, which watches the reservation waters on the American side. Sometimes the smugglers wait just over the line. The tribal police have a boat, but not enough people to operate it. “An expensive paperweight in the parking lot,� Thomas calls it.

But the $5,000 is being put to good use. The St. Regis residents are building a protective fence, around the police station itself.

“I’m slowly pulling my hair out,� says Derek Champagne, district attorney for Franklin County, which surrounds the reservation. He prosecutes all crimes committed in the county, on the reservation and off. “If we’re gonna have a border, it should really mean something.�

Last year, about $8.4 million in marijuana and $6 million in Ecstasy were seized after moving through the reservation and into the quiet farm country of northern New York. Authorities arrested 120 people as well, a mix of tribal members and outsiders.

The seized drugs are a fraction of what comes over. “Do you honestly think we’re getting 5 percent of what comes through?� Champagne asks.

The numbers come from a 2-year-old task force of more than a dozen local, state and federal authorities. But they work mostly outside the reservation and its 9,000 residents on the American side.

River crossings

Champagne pops in a videotape of the St. Lawrence River that divides the tribal lands in two.

On the tape, shot in winter, trucks drive freely over the now-frozen border. In other parts of the reservation, land roads connect the U.S. and Canada all year, with no checkpoints and no questions.

Bill Ritchie, who leads Franklin County’s task force, says he doesn’t even know of any sensors on the reservation, like the ones placed along America’s borders to monitor illegal crossings.

“How do we police that?� asks the local Border Patrol agent-in-charge, Dick Ashlaw.

Quietly, some law enforcement officials blame the lack of a real solution on the traditional tension between government and tribe, whose members post signs against the “feds� and “Gov. George Custer Pataki� along the reservation’s main highway.

“No one wants to look like the big bad government squeezing the Indian,� says Robert Singer, a retired Border Patrol agent who lives near the reservation.

It may happen just the same.

Julius Beeson just got caught in the unique geography.

He tried to cross the one bridge that links the reservation’s two halves, but was turned back by federal border officials for not having the right ID. They asked for a Canadian work permit, he says. He didn’t have one.

Tribal card meaningless?

“I’m gonna burn my tribal card,� Beeson says. He grabs his wallet and starts toward the fire that burns outside a longhouse on the reservation. “I’ve never been denied access to my own land before,� he says.

Like other tribal members, he sees the reservation as a land that can be crossed freely.

But along the edges, enforcement is tightening.

In nearby Massena, the Border Patrol station hopes to move into a new building next year, one that can hold 35 to 50 agents. The station now has 16.

The U.S. Attorney for New York’s Northern District wants to open a local office to handle the rising number of prosecutions. Beeson says he just wanted to go to work, fixing a house on an island on the Canadian side. Now he says he’s out a day’s pay, and maybe the job.

“And you wonder,� he says, still angry, still fingering his wallet, “why so many of us are going back to the river.�

Like other tribes that live along 260 or so miles of U.S. border with Canada and Mexico, the St. Regis can’t get homeland security money directly from the U.S. government.

Money comes once it’s filtered through the states. A bill to give certain border tribes, including the St. Regis, direct money is pending in Congress.

For several years, the St. Regis didn’t even have the right to ask. After an argument with Franklin County officials in 2000, tribal police had no power to arrest non-tribal members.

Still, 203 such people were turned over to the Border Patrol or state police in the past year. Full arrest power, and the right to ask for homeland security money, was restored by state law in August.

Finally, legitimate arrests

Recently, the first non-tribal members since the decision were detained. Ahmed Salah, from Bahrain, and Abdullah Mohammed, from Pakistan, were brought across the river on water scooters.

Having crossed the border illegally, they were turned over to the Border Patrol, Thomas says.

Little of this cheers Champagne. He flips through 2004’s arrests and seizures.

“May 18, 29 pounds of marijuana and a boat,� he says.

“May 21, 400 pounds and a high-speed chase.�

He looks up. “And this is a small county.� The population in 2000 was 51,134, or 41 people per square mile.

In March, knowing the unique limitations of the area’s enforcement, Champagne warned state officials against a proposal that Ashlaw of the Border Patrol simply calls “a nightmare.�

The plan would expand the St. Regis reservation. Tribal lands, most of them islands, would cover about three more miles of border.

“May 26, 64 pounds and a boat,� Champagne says, still reading.

Near his desk is a photo of President Bush and Gov. George Pataki, arriving at the local airport a few years ago. On the photo, Pataki has written, “Derek, thanks for keeping us safe.�