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Southbound surges of U.S. agents causing delays, 'disarray' at Canada-U.S. border

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle say they are growing concerned that ongoing efforts to fortify the U.S.-Mexico border are causing "disarray" along the 8,900-kilometre frontier with Canada. The management of the Canada-U.
Members of Congress are growing concerned about what they say is a shortage of agents on the southern side of the Canada-U.S. border. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer canine unit searches a vehicle as motorists pass through the Peace Bridge Port of Entry in Buffalo, N.Y. on Tuesday, May 23, 2023.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle say they are growing concerned that ongoing efforts to fortify the U.S.-Mexico border are causing "disarray" along the 8,900-kilometre frontier with Canada.

The management of the Canada-U.S. border has grown "wholly unacceptable" in recent months, said Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), a champion of streamlined bilateral travel and frequent critic of border bottlenecks. 

That's in large part because the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been temporarily redeploying personnel from northern sectors to help out in places like Arizona and Texas. 

A total of 421 officers from across the country were reassigned to the southern border for 60-day deployments beginning June 18, including 145 from northern offices such as Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago and Seattle. 

It's not clear whether personnel from similar redeployments announced in May, part of a DHS effort to head off an anticipated surge in irregular migration with the end of Title 42, have returned home yet. 

Title 42 was the pandemic-era public health measure that allowed the U.S. to turn away countless would-be refugee claimants in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. It expired for good on May 11. 

"It's like a train wreck — one thing happens, and the whole system of Customs and Border Protection is adversely affected," Higgins said in an interview. 

"Congress has the ability to appropriate more money to try to resolve this issue, but it's almost like there's incentive in the Senate to resolve it, so people weaponize the issue, depending on their particular political point of view."

CBP officials acknowledged a request for more details on the redeployments Tuesday but did not immediately provide any additional information. 

Higgins described the state of the Canada-U.S. border as "in disarray" and its management as "wholly unacceptable" in a letter last month to acting CBP commissioner Troy Miller. 

He cited growing delays on the U.S. side at the busy Peace Bridge crossing in Buffalo, as well as a persistent 12-month backlog in preliminary reviews for U.S. applicants seeking to join the Nexus frequent-traveller program. 

But the biggest concern, Higgins said, is the constant redeployment of northern border personnel to sectors in the southern U.S. to help with the relentless migratory pressure in places like Arizona and Texas. 

He said he's spoken to front-line agents who say the lack of stability is having a negative effect on morale and recruitment efforts.

"While CBP has the right to impose these hardships on these officers and their families, doing so with such frequency is a root cause of CBP's recruitment shortfalls," he wrote in the letter.

"It is unsound border management, and unsound personnel management. ... Continually shifting resources away from the northern border to address migrant flows that have persisted at the southern border since the 1980s is unsustainable." 

The letter goes on to warn that Higgins is "prepared to introduce legislative measures" that would make it more difficult for the department to redirect its personnel from northern border sectors. 

Some Republicans are also worried, albeit for different reasons.

Three of them — Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wisc.) — wrote last month to Miller and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in hopes of securing answers. 

"We are concerned ... that ports of entry along the United States' border with Canada are being left open and unattended for extended periods of time," the June 20 letter reads.  

Some entry points are open for up to 24 hours a day, it continues, "and citizens are concerned about the long periods of time when (ports of entry) are open without sufficient supervision or surveillance by CBP personnel."

It goes on to request detailed information "no later than July 10" about operating hours and staffing levels along the Canada-U.S. border, as well as copies of related memos, documents and other material. 

Matthew Tragesser, a spokesman for Biggs, said the department has yet to respond directly to the request.

"The lack of staffing up there is a major concern to us," Tragesser said in an email. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press