Homeland Security Putting Money on the Line

Facing criticism that Minnesota has spent too little to prevent terrorists from crossing into the United States from Canada, the state has drawn up plans to earmark $1 million in Homeland Security funds next year for border counties to bolster defense against infiltration.

The federal funds would go to seven northern counties, which want to buy radios and other gear to allow deputies to talk directly with U.S. Border Patrol agents, an important tool in detecting and stopping illegal immigration. Sheriffs from those counties have until Nov. 1 to agree on how to split the $1 million, which would be distributed in 2005.

Border counties balked earlier this year after state homeland security officials rejected their applications for federal money to buy radios and other equipment that the counties said were important to enforce border security.

"I don't know why they were rejected; it sounds like a good way to spend money to me," Tim Leslie, assistant commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said Tuesday. His department oversees state homeland security spending.

The Star Tribune reported Sept. 12 that state homeland security officials were denying money to counties along the border with Canada.

Meanwhile, the report said, the state was spending millions of anti-terrorism dollars on police and emergency equipment that offer little or no benefit in preventing terrorist attacks. The state awarded $208,100 to Edina for a custom-made armored vehicle to deal with weapons of mass destruction and $164,800 to Rock County, on the Iowa-South Dakota borders, to improve its 911 telephone system to better respond to traffic accidents and motorists stranded in snowstorms.

In recent weeks, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., renewed his calls for state homeland security officials to send more money to the border counties.

"I've been raising hell about this, along with some other people," Peterson said Tuesday. "I think you can argue that the most important thing we can do is secure that border up there."

The plan to earmark $1 million for the seven border counties in 2005 was detailed in a Sept. 19 memorandum by the Department of Public Safety's division of homeland security and emergency management. Homeland security officials said giving $1 million to those counties is among proposals "we currently are focusing on as high-priority." A final decision depends on an advisory commission review, federal funding levels next year and the response of the northern sheriffs.

They will meet later this week to determine how they would divide the $1 million.

"I think we'll be getting about $140,000 per county, which will take care of my first gripe of communications," said Kittson County Sheriff Kenny Hultgren, whose county has miles of wilderness and was the site of a notorious illegal border crossing. Hultgren said the news story drew attention to border security. "It got brought into the public's eye," he said.

Sheriffs' deputies and Border Patrol agents operate on different radio frequencies and currently must relay messages by phone through their dispatchers. New equipment would allow them to talk directly by radio, saving time and avoiding confusion.

"All the sheriffs want [better] communications; that's Number One for all seven of us," said Koochiching County Sheriff Duane Nelson.

In a related development Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger announced that people caught trying to enter the United States with bogus documents or stories would be jailed and their cases routinely referred to his office for possible prosecution.

Heffelfinger said that before his initiative, which began last week, some immigrants suspected of using fake documents were merely deported, not prosecuted. He said he didn't know how many cases had been handled that way.