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Terrorism Fight Clogs Jails Along Canadian Border

June 09, 2002|GENE JOHNSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

BLAINE, Wash. — A flood of federal agents arriving at the Canadian border to stop would-be terrorists instead is catching drug smugglers and small-time criminals, and the collars are beginning to clog the local court systems.

The sheriff and prosecutor in Whatcom County, in the nation's northwestern corner, have long had to deal with what they call the "border effect," when cases too small to interest federal prosecutors are turned over to local jurisdictions.

But as more border agents start making more busts, local officials fear it's only going to get worse.

"My jail is full," said Whatcom County Sheriff Dale Brandland. "Police officers can't arrest people on minor misdemeanor warrants because there's no place to put them."

County officials are hinting that, unless they get more federal money, they just might stop handling federal cases--a stance that counties along the southwestern border have used to secure funding for the last few years.

Whatcom is more susceptible than most northern counties to the border effect. It contains the Blaine border crossing, the busiest west of Detroit, one used to illegally transport marijuana from British Columbia to Seattle, Portland, Ore., and California--and cocaine north to Canada.

About 8 million people cross the border at Blaine each year.

Of arrests made there by federal agents, 85% to 90%--about 400 a year--are handled by the Whatcom County prosecutor's office. Jailing, prosecuting and providing legal help for those arrested usually costs the county about $2.3 million a year.

Prosecutor Dave McEachran is worried that those costs are about to climb. Last month, President Bush signed a bill authorizing 1,600 new immigration officers along the United States' 5,000-mile border with Canada by 2006. That includes 100 new agents for Washington this year.

"We are starting to stagger under this load," McEachran wrote to Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) last fall. "I believe we have been faithful and diligent partners to the federal government for years in this battle, and now need to have our federal partners support us financially in this effort."

The letter contained a barely veiled threat: When the federal government began focusing on stemming illegal immigration from Mexico in the 1990s, several Texas counties simply refused to handle federal arrests until the government agreed to pay for them, McEachran noted.

Now, the Justice Department compensates those counties and others in the Southwest for every case they handle. Texas' El Paso County, across the border from Juarez, has received $2 million in the last 2 1/2 years, El Paso County Dist. Atty. Jaime Esparza said.

No one is suggesting that the problem along the northern border is that serious, and McEachran said that most border cases are better handled by Whatcom County than at the federal level.

But, he said, the county needs financial support. Whatcom County has one drug prosecutor funded by the federal government, and one staff member. The two positions total about $100,000 a year.

That's more than the zero assistance given to St. Clair County, Mich., where the Blue Water Bridge links Port Huron to Sarnia, Ontario. Joseph McCarthy Jr., the senior trial attorney in the county prosecutor's office, said that the cases his office handles--mostly of the drug and weapon varieties--don't pose too great a burden.

But, he added: "Any time you increase the enforcement, you're likely to detect larger volumes of contraband.

"I can see the bridge from my office window, and I can tell you the semi truck traffic is barely crawling. The more thoroughly you inspect, the more you're going to find there."

John McKay, the U.S. attorney in Seattle, said it's unlikely that the Justice Department will start reimbursing counties in Washington state, but there are other things the federal government can do. One possibility: Assign a full-time federal prosecutor, and possibly even a federal judge, to Whatcom County.

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