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SLUG: 7-35895 Reservation Security


TYPE=English Programs Feature


TITLE=Reservation Security

BYLINE=David Sommerstein

TELEPHONE=619-2009 (editor)

DATELINE=New York State

EDITOR=Nancy Smart



INTRO: Of the more than 11,000 kilometers of international border the United States shares with Mexico and Canada, Native American reservations account for some 400 kilometers. The tribes have their own police forces and their own rights to protect their sovereign lands. As the federal government seeks to beef up border security as a result of the terrorist attacks last September it's begun working with tribal governments to patrol these areas more effectively.

David Sommerstein reports from the Akwesasne [ah-kweh-SAHZ-neh] Mohawk reservation in northern New York State, where the U-S/Canadian border actually splits the reservation in two.


TEXT: U-S agent Dick Ashlaw stands outside his patrol truck, watching the border. He's parked next to the wide St. Lawrence River, which divides the state of New York from the province of Ontario, Canada. Mr. Ashlaw calls this area a nightmare for law enforcement.


"See, there's a prime example there, that area's called Pauley's Gut."

TEXT: He points to a gap between a wooded peninsula that juts out from the U-S mainland and one of the dozens of islands that freckle the river. On the opposite shore, homes look like tiny dots.


"To your left is U-S. To your right is a part of Akwesasne, that's a part of Cornwall Island, and straight ahead those houses that you see are in mainland Canada."

TEXT: The three borders U-S, Canada, and Akwesasne Mohawk converge somewhere in those blue waters. Mr. Ashlaw says the coves and the islands of the river make it hard enough to find people trying to cross the border illegally. But it's the invisible political boundaries that make it next to impossible. The agent says as a U-S official he can't cross those lines, but criminals moving drugs, illegal immigrants, and potential terrorists can. And he says they know that.


"We could be trying to stop a boat loaded full of narcotics. They move [the boat] ten feet to the left and they're in Canada. And we can't do a thing about it. It's just so easy for them. It's just a field day for them. It's like heaven."

TEXT: The area around the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation has a history of tobacco and drug smuggling. And last year alone, border patrol agents arrested some 600 undocumented immigrants in this remote region. Tribal Chief of Police Andy Thomas says his officers' days are taken up chasing strangers through backyards on the reservation.


"That's exactly where we find them, in backyards, coming off the river bank, walking on streets, near the rivers, and that's our issue."

TEXT: Chief Thomas and border agent Dick Ashlaw agree they've developed a good working relationship over the years. They often patrol together. But Chief Thomas says tribal members are still nervous about the people and contraband that are entering the reservation illegally.


"That attacks our people's homeland. It attacks our people's sense of security. It's not just an American issue. It's our issue."

TEXT: Chief Thomas isn't alone. From Arizona to Minnesota, other tribes also have border problems, though few as dramatic as Akwesasne's. But with the post-September 11th urgency to tighten America's borders, the federal government is seeking new ways to work with tribes. Plans include more border patrol training for tribal police and cultural awareness training for U-S border agents.

Cooperation won't be easy. Tribes are wary of U-S agents poking around on their sovereign lands. But Robert Harris of the U-S Border Patrol based in Washington, D-C says the new focus on tribes isn't to gain access to reservations.


"We recognize that reservation lands are sovereign lands and we respect that. We just want to talk about what we can do better, whether that's providing training, technology, sharing information, what have you."

TEXT: But Akwesasne Mohawk Chief Raymond Mitchell says law enforcement in the United States has yet to accept tribal police as equal partners. Most tribal officers only have jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute native people. Chief Mitchell says it diminishes their effectiveness. And, he says, it's like a slap in the face.


"They're fully trained. They're certified police officers. They could leave the reserve and work anywhere. But yet, on the reserve, the local agency, sometimes even the state, won't even recognize the training they've gotten."

TEXT: Funding well-trained police is another concern. Akwesasne police chief Andy Thomas doesn't get federal money when he and his staff chase illegal immigrants around the reservation, even when they assist U-S border agents. Tribal Chief Hilda Smoke says attention to the border may have increased since September 11th, but her message is the same as it has been for years.

CUT 9: SMOKE :12

"The bottom line is we need more money so we can have police trained, maybe special officers trained in immigration laws and whatever, 'cause we didn't put that border there, the U-S and Canada put it there."

TEXT: President Bush plans to ask for a one-point-two billion dollar budget increase for border enforcement next year. Tribes are waiting to see if any of it is for them.

For VOA News Now, I'm David Sommerstein on the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation in northern New York.

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