Can $5,000 Buy Homeland Security?

On the U.S.-Canada border, a Mohawk tribe waits for help


"I'm gonna burn my tribal card," Beeson says. He grabs his wallet and starts toward the fire that burns outside a longhouse on the reservation.

"I've never been denied access to my own land before," he says.

Like other tribal members, he sees the reservation as a land that can be crossed freely.

But along the edges, enforcement is tightening.

In nearby Massena, the Border Patrol station hopes to move into a new building next year, one that can hold 35 to 50 agents. The station now has 16.

The U.S. Attorney for New York's Northern District wants to open a local office to handle the rising number of prosecutions.

Beeson says he just wanted to go to work, fixing a house on an island on the Canadian side. Now he says he's out a day's pay, and maybe the job.

"And you wonder," he says, still angry, still fingering his wallet, "why so many of us are going back to the river."

Like other tribes that live along 260 or so miles (420 or so kilometers) of U.S. border with Canada and Mexico, the St. Regis can't get homeland security money directly from the U.S. government. Money comes once it's been filtered through the states. A bill to give certain border tribes, including the St. Regis, direct money is pending in Congress.

For several years, the St. Regis didn't even have the right to ask. After an argument with Franklin County officials in 2000, tribal police had no power to arrest non-tribal members.

Still, 203 such people were turned over to the Border Patrol or state police in the past year.

Full arrest power, and the right to ask for homeland security money, was restored by state law in August.

Recently, the first non-tribal members since the decision were detained. Ahmed Salah, from Bahrain, and Abdullah Mohammed, from Pakistan, were brought across the river on water scooters. Having crossed the border illegally, they were turned over to the Border Patrol, Thomas says.

Little of this cheers Champagne. He flips through 2004's arrests and seizures.

"May 18, 29 pounds (13 kilograms) of marijuana and a boat," he says.

"May 21, 400 pounds (180 kilograms) and a high-speed chase."

He looks up. "And this is a small county." The population in 2000 was 51,134, or 41 people per square mile (per 2.6 square kilometers).

In March, knowing the unique limitations of the area's enforcement, Champagne warned state officials against a proposal that Ashlaw of the Border Patrol simply calls "a nightmare."

The plan would expand the St. Regis reservation. Tribal lands, most of them islands, would cover about three more miles (five kilometers) of border.

"May 26, 64 pounds (29 kilograms) and a boat," Champagne says, still reading.

Near his desk is a photo of President George W. Bush and Gov. George Pataki, arriving at the local airport a few years ago. On the photo, Pataki has written, "Derek, thanks for keeping us safe."