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Building a better strategy for northern border security

Anyone who’s been to a place like Portal, N.D., knows the vast expanse along the northern border that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and agents are responsible for protecting. And anyone who’s visited the southern border can tell you it’s a whole different ball game up north.

That’s what I’ve been hearing from folks like Aaron Heitke, who has been working to protect our borders for almost two decades and now oversees all United States Border Patrol agents in North Dakota and Minnesota. And it’s been my visits to places like Portal and Pembina, N.D., with folks like him that inspired my legislation, which sharpens the focus on challenges we face on the northern border. And it’s great news that my bipartisan bill was just signed into law, which will help keep our border strong and our communities safe.

It’s part of Heitke’s job to recruit and retain dedicated agents to help secure the border - which he can tell you is no easy task this time of year, when many agents might not want to sign up for our below-zero weather in a remote location. It’s an added challenge that Heitke can’t offer them resources to help move their families across the country.

That leaves Heitke with unfilled jobs, and when we’re talking about protecting the world’s longest common land border, that’s a serious security concern. It’s particularly alarming that northern border agents and officers often lack the best equipment to do their jobs. Sometimes that equipment is expensive and advanced, but designed for smaller, denser areas on the southern border. Other times that technology is nonexistent, and personnel at high-volume ports of entry check incoming trains and vehicles by hand.

Those technology lapses and employment gaps make Heitke concerned about what his teams might miss no matter how hard they work, and that’s not a problem I want our communities to experience.

When I joined the U.S. Senate in 2013, the situation at the northern border had undergone significant changes since the previous security analysis in 2011. Back then, North Dakota was in the midst of an oil and gas boom, and it brought many benefits, as well as challenges, including new faces, new money and new crime into our state. I knew closer attention needed to be paid to the northern border, and to do that, the security challenges along the expansive, porous border needed to be re-evaluated.

That’s why I got to work to make sure Heitke can get the support he needs so he and his border agents can do their jobs. Last year, I brought then-U.S. Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to Pembina where he met with border security personnel to talk about the difficulties they face in protecting the border. Last month, I heard the same concerns echoed from agents and officers in Portal. And I heard similar feedback during other meetings I held in North Dakota, and at a U.S. Senate hearing I pushed for on the issue. Now law, my bill will renew assessments of the security challenges and threats along the northern border so we can determine how to best support hardworking folks like Heitke, who help protect our families from crimes like drug trafficking, human trafficking and terrorism.

We can keep our communities strong and safe, but first we need to know where we’re vulnerable. And my bill will make that possible.

It’s great news that with the president signing my bill into law, the wheels are turning in the right direction. Just as I’ve been doing since I joined the Senate and in my work as a subcommittee ranking member on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, I’ll keep fighting to ignite a conversation that leads to a security strategy tailored to the complexities and contours of our northern border. Because once we identify our security challenges, we can build lasting solutions.

Heitkamp, a Democrat, is one of two senators

representing North Dakota in Washington, D.C.

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