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After manpower increase, Grand Forks-region border agents helping out local police

NECHE, N.D. -- The iconic Maytag repairman -- TV's poster child of loneliness -- has nothing on U.S. Border Patrol agents who monitor the nation's northern border.

Protecting the border

NECHE, N.D. -- The iconic Maytag repairman -- TV's poster child of loneliness -- has nothing on U.S. Border Patrol agents who monitor the nation's northern border.

But that peacefulness can be punctured in an instant, by a camera or sensor from a remote location that indicates someone or something may be crossing the border, or by a call for assistance by some other law enforcement agency.

"The biggest enemy becomes complacency," said Eric Kuhn, patrol agent in charge of the Pembina, N.D., station and Grand Forks substation, which are part of the Border Patrol's Grand Forks Sector.

To stay alert, agents are patrolling all over in their green-and-white SUVs, not just on the border. And with manpower 10 times what it was on 9/11, agents in the sector are lending their expertise, equipment or another set of eyes, to cities and counties in the region.

"What effect do we have on crime? When we go cruising through Neche at 2 a.m., did we prevent a crime just because they saw a green-and-white? We don't know if we did this time," Kuhn said. "But law enforcement presence does that."


But it's more than deterrence. Border agents have been involved in local criminal cases large and small for the past few years. They join in man hunts, watch the streets for suspicious activity and even respond to disasters.

A typical night

Kuhn spent about half of a work shift recently patrolling the deserted gravel roads near the U.S.-Canada border between Walhalla, N.D., and Noyes, Minn.

It was the first night of measurable snow and, with winds whipping up to 20 or 25 mph, there was no activity to report.

After nearly an hour, Kuhn traveled down Pembina County's 109th Street, a stormy stretch of an east-west gravel road just south of the border and miles from anywhere. About a mile to the west, he saw a vehicle's headlights.

It might have been a vehicle full of illegal aliens or smugglers in search of a desolate place to race across the border.

But on this night, the lights belonged to a green-and-white driven by Patrol Agent Jerry Winters, who is the supervisory agent at the Pembina station.

Besides his typical gear, Winters also carried a heat or thermal-imaging camera that allows agents to scan the land at night for more than a mile around.


There are many motion sensors and cameras posted along the border that help the patrol detect illegal crossings, but Kuhn said they're no replacement for having a border agent on the scene.

"You've got to be ready to respond," he said. "We like the sensors, but all of the cameras and sensors in the world aren't going to help if you can't get someone there to catch the guys."

Big expansion

Kuhn and Winters are just two of 200 Border Patrol agents assigned to the Grand Forks Sector, which stretches 861 miles along North Dakota's and Minnesota's land border with Canada. Its area of responsibility encompasses 71,153 square miles 28 counties in both states.

There are now about 10 times more agents in the sector than on 9/11.

Nationwide, the number of Border Patrol agents has grown from about 9,000 to nearly 21,000, including about 2,200 along the northern border.

For the Grand Forks sector, this expansion also has meant more infrastructure.

In 2010, a new $5.75 million, 34,000-square-foot sector headquarters building opened just west of Grand Forks International Airport at the intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and County Road 5.


A $13 million, 30,000-square-foot station is under construction in Pembina, about five miles south of the border. It is slated to be completed by the end of 2014.

But even as late as 2009, the number of agents stationed along the northern border was relatively small, to the point that the federal government was paying local law enforcement agencies help patrol border areas as part of Operation Stonegarden.

Initially 10 counties along the border in North Dakota and Minnesota signed on. About half the federal funds paid for new equipment and half paid overtime wages to deputy sheriffs.

Operation Stonegarden still exists -- Kittson, Pembina and Cavalier counties are participants -- though now there are so many border agents they're able to return the favor and help local agencies.

"We've grown, but we still rely on relationships with neighbors, people living up here," Kuhn said. "Some of these farmers know who belongs out here better than we do."

Helping hands

The list of local cases involving the Border Patrol is long.

Just this past week, when Rolette County launched a manhunt for two suspects in a reported shooting in Belcourt, N.D., the Border Patrol sent a helicopter and agents.

In October, when Steele County Sheriff Wayne Beckman called to say two men, including a high-risk sex offender, had escaped from jail, Kuhn rounded up every available agent for the 130-mile trip to Finley and Portland, N.D.

"When a sheriff calls and says 'We've got an escaped convict on the loose here,' we go," he said. "It's a team effort. We have experience. We're set up for it. We tracked him on foot."

The sex offender was caught that same day.

In August, when an autistic East Grand Forks boy went missing from his home, border agents joined in the massive search because of their experience tracking people in rugged areas. The boy's body was later found in the river.

But even routine cases involve the Border Patrol.

In March, after a Grand Forks man fired a gun during an early-morning fight, it was the Border Patrol that spotted him driving and tipped off police. The man was arrested at his home.

In June, the patrol tipped police off to a delivery of marijuana coming through Grand Forks on the Amtrak train. They confiscated 12½ pounds of the drug at the station and recovered an identity card that led to a suspected drug dealer's arrest in Fargo.

"We do our best to assist. It's a national strategy, the holistic approach," Kuhn said. "If that means having a body at a roadblock or a barricade, we'll do that. I don't care who puts the handcuffs on a bad guy, as long as we get the handcuffs on him."

In the Border Patrols' 2012-2016 strategic plan, that's called the "whole-of-government approach," which calls for the agency to work hand-in-hand with state, tribal and local law enforcement as well as other federal agencies.

That even includes being involved in disaster response.

Last spring, when the city of Cavalier, N.D., was evacuated because of the threat of a dam breach on the Tongue River, the Border Patrol was among the agencies on the scene to help. Besides patrolling on the ground, a Border Patrol helicopter was used to allow engineers to get a close, bird's-eye view of the dam to assess damage.

"The reason that worked so seamlessly was because of Stonegarden," Kuhn said. "They know they can pick up the phone and we'll come running. It benefits the community overall.

"Besides, all of our guys are members of the community."

Call Bonham at (701) 780-1110, (800) 477-6572, ext. 1110 or send email to kbonham@gfherald.com .

Eric Kuhn, patrol agent in charge of the Pembina station and Grand Forks substation, both of which are part of the Border Patrol's Grand Forks Sector stands near a closure at the U.S. and Canadian border near the Pembina station on a recent shift. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

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