The Caledonian-Record Online Edition · Tuesday September 4, 2007
Mike Gonyaw
190 Federal Street, PO Box 8
St. Johnsbury, Vermont 05819
Phone: 802-748-8121

Problems Deep In Border Protection Agency

BY ROBIN SMITH, Staff Writer

- DERBY LINE -- This week's flurry of meetings about traffic back-ups here on the Quebec-Vermont border revealed deeper and more troublesome problems within Homeland Security's agencies that guard the border.

Short staffing and low morale in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has the attention of the commissioner, said Thomas Winkowksi, assistant commissioner of field operations for CBP.

News Analysis

Winkowski, who promised improvements in how people cross the border here in the international community of Derby Line and Stanstead, Quebec, said that customs inspectors and border agents have undergone massive changes on the job since Sept. 11, 2001.

The merger of the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Immigration "was the most stressful time in my life," Winkowski told border residents who gathered at the Haskell Opera House Thursday at a discussion hosted by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Winkowski said CBP employees ranked "pretty low" when it comes to morale.

"We have to look at why people feel the way they feel," he said.

Customs inspectors and border agents do tough jobs with long hours and unpredictable shifts, he said.

They have a huge responsibility to protect the homeland but also to make sure that trade and travel with friendly neighbors don't grind to a halt at the same time, he said.

Winkowski's comments Thursday were made before an impressive list of supervisors in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, plus their Quebec counterparts. He made promises that many of them will have to work to carry out.

He also said that the managers of local inspectors and agents aren't doing a good job of helping the staff deal with many changes in procedures.

Growing pains in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are being felt in many of its formerly independent agencies, most notoriously within the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But border residents here are more familiar with their experiences crossing the border, or more specifically the delays and more rigorous inspections when returning to the U.S.

Local residents who cross the border in downtown Derby Line regularly have heard inspectors say that their hands are tied when it comes to rigid inspections - checking every truck every time no matter how long the lineup.

Inspectors have also urged local residents to complain to their representatives in Washington, D.C.

Problems Come To A Head

The problems came to a head this summer when Canadian tourists, with local motorists mixed into the traffic, endured up to two hours' wait to enter the U.S. at the Interstate 91 port of entry in Derby Line and more than an hour's wait at the Main Street port of entry. That lineup blocked access to businesses in both Derby Line and Stanstead, and the outcry reached the Vermont delegation quickly.

Thinking Of Leaving Their Jobs

Inspectors won't speak on the record about their circumstances on the job, but union representatives said Thursday that half the work force in the Highgate and Derby Line ports of entry are thinking of leaving their jobs.

Experienced employees are retiring early, rather than deal with new restrictions on their jobs.

That's exactly what John Wilda says. A former CBP officer and former president of the local union chapter, Wilda worked for customs for 33 years before retiring.

"I loved the job, but not in the last few years," he said. "We weren't left alone to use our experience."

Instead of using his training to identify suspicious people, Wilda said he had to rely on a computer to tell him what to think about each person who crossed the border.

He urged Winkowski to increase morale and thereby keep the experienced staffers on board.

Union leaders say it costs $50,000 to train an inspector.

Keith Beadle, a village trustee of Derby Line and also a former CBP official, has been outspoken in his criticism of how agents and inspectors have lost their discretion on the job.

He said it is threatening homeland security.

"Let them do their job properly and let them protect this country the way it should be protected," Beadle said.

"We are going to have to drill down on these issues" and solve them, Winkowski said.

Losing good people with a lifetime of experience or having a demoralized staff at the ports is a loss to the country's security, Sanders said.

A souring of relationships in Derby Line will also hurt the local community as well.

Inspectors are often neighbors of the people they have to grill at the border. They also provide a very visible law enforcement presence that would be difficult to lose.

Brian Smith said that the town of Derby spends only $20,000 on law enforcement, a tiny amount.

Straining relationships also means that residents aren't as inclined to tip off inspectors or border agents to suspicious activity.

The gathering crisis here - low morale, bitterness and tensions, losing staff - was worsened by a lack of communication with higher-ups in Homeland Security. It seemed that no one could make decisions or solve problems.

It took the U.S. congressional delegation, led by Sanders, to shake out some promises to solve what appear to be systemic problems.

Sanders has asked Winkowski to look at how the ports of entry across Vermont are being used, saying that truckers who cross in to Quebec in North Troy are forced to go hundreds of miles out of their way to cross back into Vermont at I-91.

Starr Trucking, owned by Vermont Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex Orleans, now has a chance to get a permit to cross in North Troy because of Sanders' intervention.

The North Troy port of entry is a brand new facility. Six months after it opened, Starr was told that he and his truckers could no longer cross into the U.S. there, even if they had shipments from nearby Quebec communities.

Winkowski said that he has been on the job for three weeks as assistant commissioner for field operations in CBP.

"I will never forget Derby Line," he said.

He received several rounds of applause from residents at the meeting Thursday.

Local officials like Beadle are optimistic that Winkowski will make sure things improve for the community and for the inspectors.

Derby Line Trustee Karen Jenne said she had already seen improved communications before Winkowski arrived this week. After waiting weeks, Jenne received a call in recent days from a customs official about the need for better signs alerting errant tourists that they are about to enter the U.S. and to report to customs for inspection.

Even getting more visible signs on the border isn't as easy as one might think it should be in these merged agencies.

In a brief interview after Thursday's meeting, Winkowski said he knows that the signs need improvements, but he said he hadn't found out which agency is responsible for the signs.

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