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Lack of operational control at northern border poses national security threats

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(The Center Square) – The northern border largely has been unmanned and understaffed for decades as federal reports issue conflicting conclusions about how much, or how little, operational control exists.

Some officials have suggested the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has just 1% operational control over the northern border after a 2019 General Accounting Office audit of U.S. Customs and Border northern border operations. But a December 2022 DHS report claimed, “The Border Patrol is better staffed today than at any time in its 87-year history,” noting no surveillance of extensive parts of the northern border existed prior to 9/11.

After 9/11, several federal agencies were combined to fall under the newly created Department of Homeland Security. Within 20 years, roughly 950 miles along the U.S.-Canada border from Washington to Minnesota, and roughly 200 miles along the northern border in New York and Lake Ontario, were under unmanned aircraft surveillance. None of these areas “were covered prior to the creation of DHS,” DHS says, meaning the northern border was largely unprotected since Border Patrol’s founding in 1924.

In 2012, DHS released its first unified department strategy for U.S.-Canada border security, prioritizing “deterring and preventing terrorism and smuggling, trafficking, and illegal immigration; safeguarding and encouraging the efficient flow of lawful trade, travel, and immigration; and, ensuring community resiliency before, during, and after terrorist attacks and other disasters.”

Within 10 years at the northern border, more than 2,200 Border Patrol agents were stationed between ports of entry; nearly 3,700 CBP officers were stationed at ports of entry; more than 35 land ports of entry were modernized; and thermal camera systems, mobile and remote video surveillance systems had been deployed.

Despite these improvements, “the northern border is under-resourced by far compared to the southwest border,” former Border Patrol chief Mark Morgan told The Center Square. “But at the same time, it still represents significant threats. Cartels are expanding their operations, flying people into Canada, which doesn’t require a visa, presenting an opportunity for terrorist watch-listed individuals to exploit. It’s much easier to get to Canada to come across.”

“Data from 39 months shows terrorist watch-listed individuals are coming here every day and they aren’t stopping,” Morgan added.

For years and prior to the current border crisis, there weren’t enough personnel to cover all shifts, and the infrastructure, technology and equipment afforded to them didn’t compare to those at the southwest border, he said. People can easily drive snow mobiles over frozen territory or boats across the Great Lakes in areas that are unmanned, Morgan said, with a previous policy of self-reporting to authorities.

“The northern border represents a threat,” Morgan said. Noting it only took 19 men to carry out the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Morgan has warned that a terrorist threat is already in the U.S. No one knows how many terrorist watch-listed individuals have illegally entered who weren’t caught, multiple officials have told The Center Square.

While much attention has focused on the southwest border, the greatest number of known or suspected terrorists to ever be apprehended in U.S. history were at the northern border in fiscal 2023, breaking fiscal 2022’s record, The Center Square first reported.

This fiscal year through April, the greatest number of KSTs continue to be apprehended at the northern border, 143 so far, according to CBP data.

Potential terrorist threats are not new and have persisted for some time, federal reports indicate. One Border Patrol intelligence report says terrorist threats potentially come from “foreign violent extremists to exploit established alien smuggling routes and networks for the purpose of evading detection en route to the United States.”

Other threats include drug smuggling from Canada into the U.S., connected to “criminal groups with known ties to or hired by Mexican drug trafficking organizations” and human smuggling. In the last few years, human smuggling attempts and apprehensions have significantly increased, The Center Square has reported.

The Center Square first began reporting on northern border national security threats several years ago. Since then, apprehensions of illegal border crossers in the first six months of fiscal 2024 were the highest on record. In the busiest sector of Swanton, Border Patrol agents recently apprehended more people in one week than they did in all of fiscal 2021.

Last month, they apprehended more than 1,400 illegal border crossers, more than they did in fiscal years 2021 and 2022 combined, Swanton Sector Chief Border Patrol Agent Robert Garcia just announced, saying it was “another record-breaking milestone in northern border history.”

This is after they apprehended more than 6,700 in fiscal 2023, more than the apprehensions of the previous 11 years combined, The Center Square first reported.

The U.S.-Canada border is the longest international border in the world of 5,525 miles. Unlike the U.S.-Mexico border, there are no border walls or similar barriers along the U.S.-Canada border. Through DHS, CBP officers are tasked with border security at ports of entry and Border Patrol agents between ports of entry along 4,000 miles. The U.S. Coast Guard, working with CBP’s Air and Maritime Operations, covers maritime security.

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