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NATIONAL SECURITY: Border delays may get longer
Inspectors to lose helpers as troop funds expire October 27, 2001
BY KATHLEEN GRAY FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
Delays at the border may be back in force next week when the Michigan National Guard pulls its troops from the Ambassador and Blue Water bridges.
The federal government picks up the tab for the 54 guardsmen who have been helping inspect cargo haulers at the border. But that funding is authorized only through Wednesday.
"We're going to face the type of challenges we faced when we went to heightened alert initially after Sept. 11," said Kevin Weeks, director of field operations for the U.S. Customs Service, which has authority over all the border crossings in Michigan. "I don't expect we'll see the types of delays we had that first week, but there probably will be more delays with the Michigan National Guard gone."
At the tunnel, Customs has utilized local law enforcement and border patrol employees reassigned from California to help with the increased security.
Michigan business and political leaders were lobbying the federal government Friday to try to keep the Guard in place at the bridges, but no agreement had been reached by Friday evening.
"The governor has been making calls to the White House," said Susan Shafer, spokeswoman for Gov. John Engler. "This issue has been around for five years, but the events of Sept. 11 really magnified it."
Backups at the border will harm metro Detroit's economy, said Dick Blouse, director of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. "It affects just-in-time programs at the plants and that impacts jobs."
Although federal antiterrorism legislation signed Friday by President George W. Bush includes a $50-million recommendation for border relief, the funding isn't immediately available.
The bill still needs to go through the often laborious Congressional appropriations process. Hearings haven't been scheduled yet on the spending items in the bill.
That delay in getting relief will become even more critical next week at the Ambassador Bridge and the Blue Water Bridge.
"From our prospective, we were called up to do a mission. We completed it and unless there is a change, our current plan is to end the operation on Oct. 31," said Maj. James McCrone, spokesman for the Michigan National Guard. "We know there is an awful lot of interest in keeping things flowing at the bridge, but there always are financial considerations."
Some help will come when the U.S. House and Senate vote on the Treasury/Postal appropriations bill next week, said Chris Close, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg, a Michigan Republican and member of the House Appropriations committee.
The budget includes $28.1 million for a northern border hiring and training initiative. The amount should be enough for 300 customs agents, but all the northern border states are lobbying for a share of those new employees.
Those workers won't be on the job until next summer, said Weeks.
"If the funding was available today, it would be at least six to nine months before a new hire could be used," he said. "They would have to undergo a background investigation and drug screening as well as a physical. And once they go through all that, there is an 11-week basic training course."
And help can't come soon enough, said the chamber's Blouse, who has helped spearhead an effort to lobby Congress and the Bush administration for increased border spending.
The Ambassador and Blue Water bridges along with the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel are three of the busiest crossing points between the United States and Canada, with a combined total of 26.6 million vehicles crossing the borders each year.
Since Sept. 11, prolonged delays at the border have caused traffic to decline by 30 percent, said Neal Belitsky, director of operations for the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. Longer waits at the Ambassador and Blue Water bridges are inevitable with the loss of the Michigan National Guard, said Weeks.
"It certainly is a fairly large challenge for us, but we've been at the border for 212 years and we've survived so far," he said.
Contact KATHLEEN GRAY at 248-858-2292 or email@example.com.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), October 27, 2001