Ten years after terrorists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the number of U.S. border agents has more than doubled, and nowhere has the rate of growth been faster than on the 4,000-mile northern border.
Consider the Border Patrol’s Blaine sector in the nation’s extreme northwestern tip, one of the agency’s 20 sectors: In 2001, there were only 48 Border Patrol agents there, but that number has risen to 327 today, nearly a sevenfold increase. As recently as 2008, there were 182 agents there.
Even though the border has accounted for less than 2 percent of the Border Patrol’s apprehensions since 2001, the size of its staff has jumped from 340 to 2,263 in the past decade, more than a sixfold increase.
The growth has been accompanied by roughly a 40 percent drop in apprehensions in the past 10 years, which proponents cite as proof of success.
But now the exploding growth is prompting questions of whether the federal government may have gone overboard in responding to future threats.
On Capitol Hill, those questions are driven partly by a whistleblower from Port Angeles, who set off a firestorm in late July when he testified before a congressional committee, telling members that agents had little to do and are getting paid for overtime they don’t perform.
Christian Sanchez, an agent at Port Angeles since 2009 and a former chaplain, told members of Congress that there were only four border patrol agents stationed in Port Angeles in 2001. He questioned why now there are more than 40, and soon there may be 50, housed in a new $5.7 million building that will include a fitness center and dog kennels.
“When I arrived at my station, there was rarely any casework to be done, if at all, so I just roved … wasting gasoline,” Sanchez testified. “Today this has not changed and there still is rarely any casework to do, if any, and we agents are bored.”
Sanchez is depicting a vastly different picture than a congressional study released earlier this year, which found that only 32 miles of the border with Canada - less than 1 percent - were fully secured, making the situation potentially more dangerous than the U.S.-Mexico border.
While federal officials are saying little, Washington state Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks and the state’s two Democratic senators - Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell - want to know what’s going on.
“I don’t want to prejudge, but it sounds like they might have a few more people there than they need. … They might want to reassign some of these people,” Dicks said.
Up until the late 1990s, crossing the border with Canada was fairly routine. But security became a top concern when Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian, was arrested in Port Angeles in December 1999 after he drove off a ferry from British Columbia with bomb-making materials in his trunk. He was convicted of plotting to blow up the Los Angeles airport on the eve of the millennium.
The Patriot Act, passed by Congress in 2001 as one of the first responses to the terrorist attacks, called for the addition of 10,000 border agents. Since then, the size of the force has grown to more than 20,000 today. At the same time, Congress has increased funding for the Border Patrol from $1.06 billion 2000 to $3.6 billion last year, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Sanchez, an agent since 2003, said he worked on the southern border until September 2009, where he was “very busy, doing the real, important work” to protect the country. But he said all of that changed when he moved his family from San Diego to Washington state.
“Since there is no casework, instead there is micro-management of everything and everyone,” Sanchez said. “That’s what keeps the station busy.”
He added: “The worst fraud on taxpayers is that we are getting paid overtime not to work.”
Sanchez said he was stripped of his duties as a chaplain as retaliation for speaking out. Border Patrol officials have declined to discuss specifics of the case.
Dicks, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the staffing issue has become contentious as citizens express concern that the Border Patrol is spending too much time chasing people who are illegally in the country.
Tensions flared earlier this summer when an illegal immigrant jumped into a river and died while trying to avoid capture by a border agent in the small town of Forks, best known as the fictional home of the vampires and werewolves saga “Twilight.”
In Port Angeles, a group called Stop the Checkpoints has been picketing the construction of the new Border Patrol station, complaining that too many agents have been disrupting the community.
Whatcom County residents near the border have expressed similar frustrations with Border Patrol agents driving across their land, trespassing unnecessarily and being unresponsive to complaints.
Addressing reporters at a breakfast in Washington last week, Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano said she was satisfied with staffing on the northern border.
“You’ve got to cover a lot of miles, most of which are very sparsely populated,” said Napolitano, who oversees the Border Patrol agency. “And then you’ve got the Washington area, and you’ve got the area in Detroit, and then you’ve got the East Coast ports. So you’ve got these big areas - a lot of trade, a lot of commerce go back and forth. And then you’ve got these huge areas of almost uninhabited territory. So how do you deal with that? It’s manpower but a greater reliance on technology as well.”
She said that Congress is involved in determining staffing levels at the border.
“It’s written into our immigration bill,” she said. “So we try to deploy them where they are best used, and that changes over from year to year.”
Some fear that all of the added security has hindered business on the northern border, by making it more difficult to cross. Business officials say that border traffic is oftentimes influenced by the economy.
In Sumas, Mayor Bob Bromley said border traffic fluctuates visibly with the currency exchange rate.
“Now that the (Canadian) dollar’s gotten stronger, … we’re seeing more people taking vacations in the United States,” he said.
Despite the loonie’s economic power, border crossings remain well below pre-2001 levels.
Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen, whose district includes Whatcom County, said the area benefits greatly from the cross-border traffic, adding that the “economic engine of trade is an important part of our lives here.”
But he said the beefed-up Border Patrol presence in the past decade has made the public safer, noting that fewer agents are now required to work overtime when they may be tired.
“We have the people to do the job that we’re asking them to do,” he said. “They’re doing a great job.”
Since Sanchez went public with his story, Border Patrol officials have been going to community meetings, trying to assure citizens that the agency has plenty to do to keep its workers busy.
And Richard Sinks, a spokesman for the Blaine sector, said his office “could always use more agents.”
“The agents here have a job to do,” Sinks said. “And the more agents we have, the safer we’d be.”
Sinks said the Blaine sector’s use of technology has increased dramatically in the past decade. Both a marine unit and an air unit now assist the land-based officers. And frequent border crossers can scan “smart border technology” Nexus passes that speed up their checkpoint clearing process.
He would not say how many agents are on duty at a crossing at any given time because, he said, smugglers have extensive intelligence systems and could use that information to decide which crossings have the most lax security.
“We don’t want to give out anything we don’t have to,” he said.