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Notebook Politics

North to South

The international Blue Water Bridge at the Michigan-Ontario border (iStock)

Politics

North to South

The summer migration crisis sparked a big migration for border officers too 

It’s a warm morning in early autumn at the Michigan-Ontario border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officers Ken Hammond and Greg Calhoun stand in a closed lane at the Port Huron primary inspection booths in their dark blue uniforms. It’s overcast, but both men wear sunglasses. Behind them, cars, RVs, and semitrucks split into their assigned lanes as they approach the booths from the Blue Water Bridge. The bridge, which connects the United States and Canada over the St. Clair River, quivers under the weight of the hundreds of vehicles, some from as far away as Arizona or Florida. 

This wind-swept bridge, sandwiched between Michigan’s Port Huron on one side and Ontario’s Sarnia on the other, is one of the four most heavily traveled border crossings between the United States and Canada. In 2018, more than 1.5 million personal vehicles and 800,000 trucks entered the United States through the port. As Officer Calhoun points out, that’s a big number for a small Michigan city with a population of less than 30,000. 

But the typical 15- to 30-minute wait here at Port Huron is negligible compared with the hours travelers spend at the Texas-Mexico border crossings in El Paso, where almost 12.4 million personal vehicles entered the United States last year. That’s why this summer, as the influx of migrants at the southern border intensified, CBP moved some of the officers at the northern border south to help keep operations moving at the Mexico border.

In June, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that the CBP priority of securing the U.S.-Mexico border was preventing CBP offices at the U.S.-Canada border from fixing “staffing and resource challenges.” But the report said those shortages mainly impair the effectiveness of the divisions of CBP responsible for monitoring the border between legal ports of entry. For the Office of Field Operations, the division responsible for the legal ports of entry like the Blue Water Bridge, the main consequence is longer wait times for travelers. 

Leah Hickman

Greg Calhoun (left) talks with Ken Hammond at the Port Huron border crossing. (Leah Hickman)

While that impact may be minimal for travelers, it’s a burden for officers. According to Officer Jonathan Larson, the Blue Water Bridge CBP Office of Field Operations had about 10 percent of its workforce at the southern border at all times from April until mid-September, when the operation ended due to the decreasing number of migrants. That’s about 20 officers at once. 

If not enough officers volunteered, the port director assigned the rest. This summer, Larson volunteered to work at a migrant camp in El Paso to avoid being assigned at a later time. Since he volunteered, he had two weeks’ notice. Not everyone had that convenience, though: A fellow officer was sent down for two months with only four days’ notice. “It’s difficult,” says Larson. “Nobody likes getting that short of notice to leave.”

Larson recognizes the need for more officers on the Mexico border. He’s worked the bridges in El Paso before, and he says travelers at those border crossings are similar to Blue Water Bridge migrants, traveling mainly for work, school, shopping, or sometimes visiting family. But the differences between Port Huron and El Paso are stark. At the Blue Water Bridge, the influx of vacationers in the summer can increase wait time to an hour. Meanwhile, it’s busy year-round at the Mexico border, and Larson says the lines in El Paso can take two to three hours to get through. He remembers how the 110-degree desert heat produced the forceful smell of hot rubber, hot metal, and sweaty people during those long hours.

On top of that, officers at the southern border deal with more illegal activity. While a day at the Blue Water Bridge is more likely to involve catching paperwork problems or agricultural pests, fraud and illegal drugs are daily finds in El Paso. A hundred pounds of narcotics isn’t an uncommon discovery down there. “Every day, you know you’re likely to have drugs coming through your lane. … You’re a little bit more on your toes there,” says Larson. “Here, it’s not so bad.”

Back on the bridge, Officer Hammond stands with his back toward the United States customs booths. Behind him, a handful of cars and CBP vehicles sit parked under the rusty brown overhang outside of a gray cement building, where the officers in the booths send select travelers for further questioning. An occasional semi-truck slowly rolls past on its way to the exit ramp. Even in calm Port Huron, Hammond says, CBP officers regularly face unknown dangers and hard decisions. But he recognizes that those unknowns are nothing like what they face at the southern border: “It’s night and day from what goes on down there.”

Comments

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  • John
    Posted: Mon, 12/09/2019 12:49 pm

    Not so much traffic on the last Sunday evening in September.  No cars in front of me, nor behind me.  I was returning to the US from a 70th wedding anninversary in Hamilton, Ontario.  The officer had only one question:  "Is that a legal license plate?" I guess not many cars have the Tennessee Choose Life plate, with the baby smiling and waving.

  • John
    Posted: Mon, 12/09/2019 12:50 pm

    Not so much traffic on the last Saturday evening in September.  No cars in front of me, nor behind me.  I was returning to the US from a 70th wedding anninversary in Hamilton, Ontario.  The officer had only one question:  "Is that a legal license plate?" I guess not many cars have the Tennessee Choose Life plate, with the baby smiling and waving.