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Racial profiling, bridge backups at issue in border forum

Every time a Pakistani woman in a long-distance marriage to a Grand Island doctor headed south from her Toronto home to see her husband, she was delayed at the international border by U.S. Customs & Border Protection officers.

Frustrated, she went to see her American lawyer in Niagara Falls, who decided to accompany her across the bridge.

When attorney Paul K. Barr tried to explain the situation to border officers, he said, they accused him of attempting to smuggle the woman into the United States.

“I accused them of racial profiling,” Barr said. “After four hours, a border supervisor worked some magic on the computer, and she hasn’t had a delay since then.”

But in those four hours, Barr said, “I did not see any people who looked like me being stopped for a secondary inspection. They were all minorities.”

Barr, who is white, shared this complaint at a legal seminar on border issues Monday that included Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and regional border officials in the Robert H. Jackson United States Courthouse in downtown Buffalo.

Christopher T. Paresi, assistant chief counsel for Customs and Border Protection in the region, said the Constitution makes it clear that borders are considered special areas and that the government has a right to conduct inspections, a point that has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

The agency, Paresi added, has a policy against racial profiling, and he suggested that paperwork for Barr’s client might have been incomplete.

Rose Hilmey, acting director of the Buffalo field office for Customs and Border Protection, told Barr that she would privately speak with him about his complaint, which included the continued denial of the woman’s request for a NEXUS pass to allow quicker passage over the border.

Hilmey stressed that the agency’s top mission is border security. “We’re trying to find that one needle in the haystack. We have to be right every time. The bad guy only has to be right once,” she said.

The job is massive, Hilmey said as she provided an overview of the agency’s workload on a typical day:

• Processing about 51,000 people in passenger cars entering the United States.

• Processing more than 4,000 commercial vehicles and 100 buses coming into various ports of entry.

• Issuing 1,000 visitor permits and collecting more than $1.2 million in duties and fees.

The regional office, she said, takes in ports of entry not only in Buffalo Niagara but throughout upstate New York and elsewhere.

The forum was sponsored by the Niagara Law Center in collaboration with Niagara University and the Bar Association of Niagara County. Other issues included how to speed up the flow of goods, cross-border shopping and how long a visitor can stay in either country.

When Fort Erie, Ont., attorney Richard S. Halinda asked what U.S. officials were doing to acquire more land to expand the number of inspection booths on the American side of the Peace Bridge, Higgins said an effort to purchase more land was defeated because of health and environmental concerns.

“Environmental experts will tell you that it’s idling diesel truck engines that impact health and the environment,” the congressman said of the continuing congestion at the Peace Bridge. “By increasing the size of the plaza and bridge, it would reduce the number of idling diesel engines that are emitting bad stuff.”

And while technological improvements are being put in place along with additional customs officers, Higgins said, those measures only go so far when there is not enough space to expand facilities.

“The South Grand Island Bridges have four lanes that connect Buffalo to Grand Island, a population center of about 25,000. The Peace Bridge has three lanes and connects Buffalo to Southern Ontario with a population of about 12 million that is expected to increase by 4 million over the next decade and a half,” Higgins said.

That said, Higgins added, Canadians are crucial in supporting ticket sales for the Buffalo Bills and Sabres, the region’s two low-cost airlines, JetBlue and Southwest, and shopping in Western New York.

“About 85 percent of the weekend shoppers at the Galleria mall are Canadians, but the economy does not respond well to uncertainty and instability. So what people do with the Peace Bridge is avoid it. The only way to address this is to build capacity and that is with a new plaza and bridge span,” he said. “Right now, we are doing this with one hand tied behind our back, and we are the busiest northern border crossing with combined commercial and passenger car traffic.”

Deborah B. O’Shea, a Buffalo attorney and a director of the Buffalo Canoe Club, expressed concern about a rule that prohibits Americans from spending more than 180 days in Canada, a rule that also applies to Canadians when they visit the United States.

“What if you have a summer home in Canada and just go over to do five minutes of banking at a Canadian bank? Those 180 days add up and those five minutes supposedly equal one day,” she said.

The 180-day rule, Higgins said, needs to be addressed so that short visits, such as shopping trips, or even longer visits, say for Canadians going to winter homes in warmer U.S. climates, are not inhibited by the rule. Federal legislation co-sponsored by Higgins would exempt Canadians 50 and older, if they owned or rented property here.

And Higgins pointed out that other northern crossings have had big successes in improving infrastructure.

“The Canadian government is giving the State of Michigan $1 billion to build a new plaza and bridge in Detroit,” he said. “That should be us.”