Incentives offered for new agents at remote border crossings

Border Crossing Vermont Canada AP FBN

NORTON, Vt. (AP) — It can be slow at the U.S.-Canadian border crossing between Norton, Vermont, and Stanhope, Quebec, where agents have watched moose amble through while waiting for people and cargo.

But the port is still open 24/7 and needs to be staffed around the clock. However, the U.S. Government is having a hard time finding employees.

As part of a nationwide effort to increase staff at some of its most remote border crossings, Customs and Border Protection is now offering hiring bonuses and job security for people willing to make the move to remote spots in Vermont, Maine, North Dakota, Texas and other locations on both the northern and southern borders.

While the hours of operation of some remote crossings are being reduced, in the post 9/11 era, security procedures require that crossings be staffed by at least two officers at all times.

"There are midnight shifts in many locations where the volume is minimal, yet the community still expects to have that level of service," said Customs and Border Protection Assistant Commissioner Todd Owen.

Mario Marquis, a Norton agent for 15 years, said he'd like to have more co-workers.

"The pool of people that you would pick from have probably left the area to look for work somewhere else," said Marquis, who greets border-crossers in both English and French.

New officers do come to work in Norton, but it's hard for many who feel isolated in the rural region where even a trip to Walmart is an all-day event.

"They come here and they soon realize it was a mistake," Marquis said of some outsiders who come to work the port. "They are like a fish out of water, like I am when I go to Boston."

There are 328 ports of entry to the United States across the country, including land, sea and airports. Customs and Border Protection is currently working to hire 1,300 officers nationwide — 1,150 at about 30 officially recognized hard-to-fill locations. Of those, new hires at 21 locations, including Norton, are eligible for a three-year 25 percent bonus on top of a base pay of about $32,000.

The hiring effort, which began spring 2015, is separate from President Donald Trump's executive order issued shortly after he took office to hire 5,000 new border patrol agents and other security personnel.

Many ports now help fill staffing shortages with lots of overtime for the officers, but that can only go so far, Owen said.

"You need the staffing to be healthy so that there is that balance, you have fresh officers and the officers also have quality of life," he said.

Even though the officers might appear to be working in areas where there is little to do, they have to be as ready to detect threats as officers working at larger, busier points of entry.

Therese Herr, now a border patrol supervisor in Beecher Falls, where Vermont, New Hampshire and Quebec meet, was called in one night in December 1999 when a Montreal woman was arrested trying to bring a Moroccan man into the country illegally.

The woman, Lucia Garofalo, was initially linked to Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian who had been living in Montreal who was caught in Washington state that same month trying to bring a bomb into the United States that he planned to detonate at the Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve.

"The tough things for these guys and gals — there's a danger of somebody becoming complacent, but I'm going to say this for the people who work here: I don't see that happening," said Herr, who acts as a local recruiter. "They are always on top. We're very fortunate to have a good group of people, but it would be nice to have more."