Grand Forks, N.D. Moves Closer to Landing Border Security Operations Center

Grand Forks moved closer this week to boasting a federal base of enhanced law enforcement, surveillance and airspace security operations to patrol, in one U.S. senator's words, "a large, porous portion" of the northern border with Canada.

A Homeland Security bill approved Monday by a U.S. House-Senate conference committee includes $2 million for establishing an Air and Marine Operations branch at Grand Forks, according to Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and other federal sources.

Air and Marine Operations is within the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement of the Department of Homeland Security.

The Grand Forks money is part of the final $30.8 billion Homeland Security appropriations bill that provides $19.1 billion for border protection, immigration enforcement and related activities. The bill now returns to Congress for its approval before going to President Bush for his signature.

The Grand Forks branch would bring to five the number of northern border defense posts, Conrad said in a news release. Additional northern border bases will be established at Detroit and Great Falls, Mont., within the next two years. The first bases opened last year in Bellingham, Wash., and in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

"This is one more way to secure our nation's defense," Conrad said in a news release. "We need to shut the door on terrorists, who want to sneak across remote border points to strike on U.S. soils," Conrad said in a news release.

In fact, much of the work by the Air and Marine Branches are intended to support efforts to find and arrest drug runners, illegal aliens and smugglers trying to cross the border.

The intent, according to an Air and Marine fact sheet, is to "employ many of the same enforcement and interdiction capabilities that have been employed for decades" along the U.S.'s southern border.

Including North Dakota and Minnesota, the Grand Forks sector of the U.S. Border Patrol covers 917 miles of international border, from Montana to Wisconsin.

The exact form the Grand Forks base will take has not yet been specified, nor have the number of jobs to be added. Ultimately, the possibilities include a mix of air and watercraft, including manned and drone flights, and monitored global positioning systems and video cameras to identify potential intruders.

The Grand Forks sector Border Patrol has one helicopter, with night illumination and infrared imaging systems. The helicopter is kept at Grand Forks International Airport. The local Border Patrol also uses watercraft.

The Bellingham Air Marine Branch that debuted a year ago eventually will consist of 69 federal law enforcement officers, pilots, aircrew and mission support personnel, according to an Air and Marine fact sheet.

Grand Forks also is will be the home to a new federal Smart Border program that was included in legislation signed last December by President Bush. That pilot project would use drone flights, Global Positioning Systems monitoring and video cameras to identify potential intruders.

The project partners the Border Patrol with UND; North Dakota State University; and private corporations Panasonic, Hewlett-Packard and Computer Sciences Corp.

The Grand Forks-based Border Patrol sector office "controls a large, porous portion of the northern border. They do a phenomenal job but they need more resources," Conrad said in the release. He said Air and Marine and the Smart Border project "will greatly strengthen homeland security, while creating jobs in North Dakota."

(c) 2005 Associated Press