Border Patrol says its mission is misunderstoodby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota has a growing number of federal agents protecting the rugged, wooded northern border. But some residents of northeastern Minnesota are complaining that they need protection from the Border Patrol. Two high profile controversies have convinced the agency to reach out in an effort to improve its image, and explain its mission.
Gunflint Trail, Minn. — While driving on patrol, agent Joe Kempa pulls into a boat landing at Gunflint Lake. Across the lake is Canada. The border runs through the middle of the lake. With the sun just setting, the only intruders are a small flock of ducks.
The scene is tranquil, but Kempa says the emotions swirling around the Border Patrol's mission are anything but.
"The Border Patrol deals with two of the most hot button issues that the nation currently faces, with immigration and the war on terror," Kempa said. "Everybody seems to have an opinion on that."
There are plenty of opinions about the Border Patrol in northeastern Minnesota -- many of them negative. Kempa heads the Patrol's office in Grand Marais. He says his agents and their mission aren't getting a fair shake from locals or the media.
"I think we get painted with a broad brush, and the mission isn't understood to a large extent," said Kempa.
The mission, he says, is to prevent illegal immigration and terrorism.
Border agents conduct on-the-scene observation, and monitor a whole tool kit of electronics like night-vision video cameras, infrared and seismic sensors that detect movement and relay alarms back to the agency.
Every time there's an alarm, an agent makes a run to check it out. The urgent coming and going has prompted some area residents to complain about speeding. It mystifies others, like Lee Kerfoot, whose Gunflint Lodge faces Canada on Gunflint Lake.
"We see them driving up and down the road in their vehicles, one person to a vehicle, of course, and never stopping to really check in with any of us," said Kerfoot, "and just kind of driving around, and kind of leaving you with probably easily-misunderstood intent."
Relations got tense two years ago when the patrol was planning to build a major facility with jail cells and a helipad in Grand Marais. Eventually, those plans were shelved.
But then, last fall, a Border Patrol SUV struck and killed a local resident who was clearing a fallen tree from a highway in the Superior National Forest.
The accident put the spotlight back on the patrol. Agent Maranda Weber faces misdemeanor traffic charges in the accident, and with the case open, there's been no comment coming from the agent or the Border Patrol.
That silence bothers Luana Brandt, with the Norwester' Lodge.
"There's still this sort of question of why?" Brandt says. "What's going on? Because we're not hearing anything."
Agent Weber is trying to move the case to federal court, fanning accusations that the Border Patrol isn't accountable to the community where it operates.
Agent Joe Kempa says he can't comment on the case, but he says the agency has to be mysterious sometimes because the job requires some covert work.
Agents might sit in a woods for hours on end, watching a potential border crossing.
"If somebody, a terrorist organization was going to move something, certainly there would be counter-surveillance to see what we're doing," said Kempa. "We're in the brush, and watching something and being vigilant, and it's largely misunderstood."
In the face of some tough public relations, Kempa has been reaching out, especially to the lodges and resorts near the Canadian border, whose owners can serve as additional eyes and ears.
Greg Gecas with Heston's Lodge says he's finally met and talked with some of the area agents.
"They've come around with a liaison officer, stopping at different outfitters and resorts, having a cup of coffee," Gecas said. "We've been able to get on a first-name basis with several of them. And it seems like it's working really well. There's a much more friendly relationship with the citizens up here and the Border Patrol."
Kempa says his agents aren't really that mysterious, even if their work is. They live in the community, their kids go to local schools, and they're involved in local activities like scouting and soccer. He's trying to mend hard feelings.
But his success will be difficult to evaluate, until the traffic case against Agent Maranda Weber is settled once and for all.
Read part 1: Border Patrol under fire in Grand Marais
- All Things Considered, 09/18/2008, 4:53 p.m.