SWEETGRASS, Mont., Oct. 3 -- Raise the issue of illegal immigrants sneaking across the border, and images come to mind of people wading across the Rio Grande or hiking across a scorching desert.
But for United States Border Patrol officials like Robert Finley, chief agent for a nearly 500-mile stretch of the United States- Canadian border here in the Great Plains, there are other situations to worry about now as he faces new mandates to secure the border against terrorists.
"There are all kinds of means to get across the prairie illegally," said Mr. Finley, whose district runs from the Continental Divide in Montana well into North Dakota. "People use bicycles here, they drive in on snowmobiles. They come over by horseback."
Mr. Finley's concerns highlight the difficulties officials face as they race to tighten this country's 5,000-mile northern border.
While Congress is set to triple the number of agents along the world's longest nonmilitarized boundary, those agents will have to accomplish very different missions in very different places. In the vast stretches of Rocky Mountain and Plains states, a more secure border would mean trying to close an open prairie. At the major urban crossings, it would mean stepping up security at the risk of creating the gargantuan backups that have occurred in the last three weeks.
And while calls for a crackdown on the border here are understandable, they run counter to what had been the primary mission for customs, immigration and Border Patrol agents before the Sept. 11 attacks: to fulfill the promise of the North American Free Trade Agreement, to make the border as unobtrusive as possible and to build on the world's largest bilateral trade flow, now $420 billion a year.
But that is no longer true, as Attorney General John Ashcroft and others vow to make border crossings more rigorous. While about 8,000 patrol agents are along the United States-Mexico border, just 300 are on the much longer Canadian front, which includes Alaska's boundary with western Canada.
"It'd be nice to be able to go 24/7 in some places," said Mr. Finley, noting that most of the 13 ports of entry in Montana were not staffed from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. During those hours, some crossings are blocked with a locked gate; others have only an orange cone to show that they are officially "closed." Patrol chiefs like Mr. Finley consider themselves lucky to have one agent on duty for every 50 miles or more of boundary.
The call for a crackdown is posing equally vexing problems at the border's busiest crossings.
Four such spots N Blaine, Wash., near Vancouver; Port Huron, Mich.; Detroit; and Buffalo, N.Y. N together account for nearly three-quarters of all crossings between the United States and Canada. Since Sept. 11, each has been the site of enormous delays, some stretching more than four hours, as customs and immigration agents have intensified searches. In Detroit, the busiest commercial entry point from Canada into the United States, the wait at the Ambassador Bridge into Windsor, Ontario, was about 45 minutes this afternoon.
These delays have disrupted daily routines, because many people near these crossings live in one country and commute to the other. But their greatest impact has been economic. Commercial truckers, whose vehicles require intensive searches, have been slowed considerably. Tourism has been hurt, too. At the giant Casino Windsor, which draws 80 percent of its clientele from the United States, business has plummeted since Sept. 11.
"We are now running about 55 percent of normal," said Jim Mundy, a spokesman for the casino, which has laid off 87 employees. Casino Windsor, just across the Detroit River, is Windsor's third-largest employer, behind Ford and Daimler- Chrysler and ahead of General Motors.
Meanwhile, in Niagara Falls, N.Y., several stores at the usually bustling Prime Outlets Mall, a popular destination for shoppers, say business has been down 50 percent or more in the last three weeks.
Here in Sweetgrass and in nearby del Bonita, where small crossing outposts are dwarfed by prairie, long lines are not the problem.
At del Bonita, an American visitor was subjected to a 20-minute search of his vehicle and luggage by a Canadian immigration inspector, as well as a computer check of his driver's license. The procedure caused a delay for exactly one car.
The challenge here is the vast geography that needs to be covered. "There's going to be some cracks," Mr. Finley said. "Everybody knows that. We do the best we can with the manpower we have." Even a tripling of the forces, would still leave large areas unmonitored.
Given that many more illegal immigrants try to come across the Mexican border, according to federal estimates, such disparities are understandable.
Still, the Canadian border is not unknown to terrorists. Participants in the World Trade Center bombing eight years ago appeared to have used Canadian immigration papers to gain access to the United States. Ahmed Ressam, who was arrested by United States customs officials in December 1999 with a carload of explosives, and convicted, had tried to enter Washington State by a ferry from Victoria, British Columbia.
In the nation's capital today, the chiefs of the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service told a Senate subcommittee that they needed more agents and better technology to guard the border. But some experts are skeptical about how much of a difference additional agents would make.
"It will have a placebo effect more than anything else," said Demetrios Papademetriou, co-director of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington nonprofit group that studies immigration and border issues. "It may make us feel a little better. There is no way you can truly secure that border."
One proposal, advanced by Paul Cellucci, the United States ambassador to Canada, would require the two countries to so enmesh their immigration laws and monitoring procedures that the border itself would be all but invisible.
After Sept. 11, such concepts are even more firmly rooted in the realm of fantasy. Even the more realistic goal outlined in 1996 by Canada's then-minister of national revenue, David Anderson N "a hassle-free border for honest travelers and businesses, and a brick wall for those who try to smuggle or break other laws at this border" N seems far off.
Congressional negotiators have agreed on the outlines of a plan for increasing border agents and providing the patrol, customs and immigration agencies with better technology. Some of the technology exists, such as remote-controlled video cameras, motion sensors and voice-recognition systems that could allow local residents to cross at all hours, even while detecting potential intruders.
For now, though, the focus is on agents to police the border. "All the technology in the world doesn't do me any good," said Mr. Finley of the Border Patrol, "if I don't have an agent to respond to it."