LYONS — An open forum coordinated by members of Wayne Action for Racial Equality and Wayne County Sheriff Barry Virts brought area residents together with officials of Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement last month as part of Border Patrol efforts to do more community outreach.
U.S. Border Patrol Deputy Chief Daniel Hiebert answered questions written on postcards by many of the nearly 100 people who attended the forum, which took place at the Wayne County Board of Supervisors chamber. He also outlined the Border Patrol’s new strategic plan, which Hiebert said focuses on integration and rapid response.
As the federal enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security, the Border Patrol operation has more than doubled in size following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, from about 10,000 agents at that time to more than 21,000 today, Hiebert explained. When he began on the job 26 years ago, there were 2,700 agents nationally, he added.
The number of agents covering the northern U.S. border increased from 350 to more than 2,200 in the past decade, and the Buffalo sector, which includes Rochester, has grown from 39 agents to 313. The Buffalo sector’s current annual budget is $2.14 million, said Hiebert, who heads up the sector’s headquarters on Grand Island.
A strategic plan was necessary to provide accountability for all the additional manpower, funding and equipment Border Patrol has received in the past decade, especially given the country’s new economic realities, he added.
"We have all this stuff, now what do we do with it?" Hiebert asked rhetorically. "We’re reactive instead of proactive when it comes to doing things."
The strategic plan calls for better utilizing data to make decisions on how to best use Border Patrol’s resources, he said. And an integration component of the strategic plan includes assisting local law enforcement departments — by sharing information and assets — as well as reaching out to communities, especially along the northern U.S. border, to improve communication and relationships.
Hiebert likened the job of Border Patrol to being cops on the street while ICE agents act as detectives on cases.
"One of the things that Border Patrol has not traditionally been good at is engaging community where we live in and work … and have communities help us and we help communities," he said.
Border Patrol also provides funding and equipment to local law-enforcement departments and the New York State Police when seeks their help on cases through Operation Stonegarden, which is a federal grant program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Program to assist with Homeland Security anti-terrorist efforts, Hiebert said.
He noted, however, that Border Patrol does not ask state and local police "to do active immigration enforcement."
Jim Wood, a professor at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford who also is a member of Wayne Action for Racial Equality, said that he appreciated the willingness of Border Patrol and ICE officials, who also were on hand to answer questions, to share so much information about what they do. But he said that he was alarmed by Hiebert’s comments that there are no job requirements for agents beyond high school diplomas and that their training doesn’t cover interpersonal interactions. Such training would assist agents in their daily dealings with people they stop, which are usually one-on-one interactions, he said.
Wood said he was heartened, though, that due to public pressure, agents in the Buffalo sector are required to report their stops — something Hiebert acknowledged is not required in other areas.
"That’s a point of pride to the activism in this area," Wood added.
He said that another important point made by Hiebert made was that agents have little prosecutorial discretion because their job is to enforce the laws of this country.
"That’s the other concept that keeps striking me," Wood said. "That’s the important battle … there needs to be alteration in the law."