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Dan Gunderson, Published December 18 2013

Northern Border Patrol agents give big assist to local law enforcement

KARLSTAD, Minn. – Pennington County Sheriff Ray Kuznia used to call the U.S. Border Patrol only when he had an immigration related case. Now, his seven-person office has them on speed dial.

When Kuznia sought help recently on a missing person search, federal officers brought in a helicopter. If he needs surveillance photos, he can ask for a flyover by the patrol’s unmanned aircraft. The cooperation works both ways. Kuznia’s deputies provide Border Patrol agents with any information they think might be useful.

For years, it didn’t happen that way. The feds and local law enforcement near the Canadian border didn’t talk much. That changed with the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Federal officials added staff on the northern border but also realized new tactics and more cooperation were needed.

Now, more Border Patrol agents live and work in cities and towns that can be miles from the border. Some spend half of their time assisting local sheriffs and police departments.

The help is welcomed by local sheriffs.

“When you’re in a small department where you might only have one (investigator) on at a specific time,” said Kuznia. “That extra person watching your back is very important.”

The Resident Agent program was piloted by the Grand Forks Border Patrol office in 2009. It’s now a national model.

Getting agents out of border stations and into local communities was critical, said Austin Skero, the Border Patrol’s chief agent in the Grand Forks office, which covers 861 miles of border from Montana to Michigan with about 200 agents, up from 30 before the 2001 attacks.

“They can get out and talk to a lot of our farmers, and a lot of our local law enforcement and our local residents,” Skero said. “It’s not necessarily about the numbers of people you’re catching. It’s about, is the border safe.”

It’s a rewarding but very different kind of Border Patrol job, said agent Hector Regalado, who worked 14 years as an agent on U.S. Southern border at some of the patrol’s busiest stations.

“We were apprehending well over 1,000 in a 24-hour period,” he said as he began his patrol on a recent, bitterly cold morning. “It was always go-go-go.”

Three years ago, Regalado wanted a change from the frenetic pace, so he applied for a job on the northern border.

Last year, Grand Forks Border Patrol agents arrested 418 people.

Here, the job isn’t about waiting to pick up people who cross the U.S. Canadian border illegally.

Agents spend more time looking for people who cross the Southern border illegally and head north.

“And they get a job and they’re working in communities so we’re not sitting here waiting for them to come across, because we’ll have a long wait. But we’re out looking in the communities. And that’s why those partnerships are so vital,” said Regalado.

He lives in Karlstad, along with two other agents responsible for Kittson, Marshall, Roseau and Pennington counties in Minnesota.

Regalado says they split their time between working the border and backing up local law enforcement.

They spend a lot of time building relationships with local law enforcement.

From October 2012 to October 2013, agents in the Grand Forks sector responded to 825 calls for assistance from other agencies. Some were immigration related. Others were simply backing up short-staffed local law enforcement.

Local residents are sometimes surprised when he answers a call to the local sheriff. “They ask me, ‘Who are you exactly?’ I’ll reintroduce myself and that’s when it clicks, ‘Oh, you’re U.S. Border Patrol.’ It surprises a lot of people.”

The collaboration with local residents and law enforcement is paying off with better intelligence about border activity according to Chief Agent Skero.

“We measure our success by the level of situational awareness that we can gain and maintain along the border to establish lower levels of risk. It’s not necessarily about the numbers of people you’re catching. It’s about is the border safe.”