- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

NIAGARA RIVER, N.Y. — The river moves through the deep, rocky gorges south of Niagara Falls at about 20 mph, passing through a region known both as the Whirlpool and Devil’s Hole.

U.S. Border Patrol agent Phil Knapp, now a member of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), maneuvers his 27-foot Sea Ark patrol craft through the tricky waters, as agents Jason Heckler and Roger Chavez scan the shorelines for illegal aliens and “anything else out of the ordinary.”

The river here, which curiously runs south to north, is the dividing line between the United States and Canada, passing between power plants on each side of the border — both churching massive amounts of water through giant turbines.

“It’s hard to believe, but people are trying all the time to get across the river at this point,” said Mr. Heckler, a supervisory agent at the Border Patrol’s Niagara Falls station. “They come across at night, many in inflatable rafts and usually overloaded with people.

“With the water churning through here so quickly, often it’s just a tragedy waiting to happen,” he said, noting that the rapid current often changes direction and waves can be as high as 4 feet.

The Niagara River connects Lake Erie to Lake Ontario and passes by the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls. At the Whirlpool area, it flows between the Sir Adam Beck-Niagara Generating Station in Canada and the Robert Moses Power Plant in the United States.

The picturesque gorge is an area where illegal aliens often try to gain entry into the United States, crossing during the summer months from a parklike area on the Canadian side in all manner of boats and rafts, with even swimmers challenging the 20-mph current. During the winter months, the aliens attempt to walk over the many frozen areas of the river.

Most of them, Mr. Heckler said, are headed to Buffalo, Washington, New York City and Chicago. They come from Costa Rica, Honduras, China and dozens of other countries, many having paid a smuggler to get them across the border, he said.

“The smugglers are getting about $1,800 a head,” said Mr. Heckler, adding that lesser amounts also are paid to the men who guide the immigrants to and across the water. “It can be a very expensive venture, but a lot of people appear willing to pay the price — figuratively and literally.

“In the summer, they’re taking the real chance of drowning in the fast water and in the winter, if they’re foolish enough to try it then, they’re dead if they fall in,” he said.

Mr. Heckler said the smugglers are “very organized,” mostly Canadians or immigrants who live in Canada. Along with the drug smugglers who also work the area, they have been targeted by both the CBP and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), who work together to identify those involved and focus on their operations.

“We have a very good working relationship with the RCMP, and have undertaken numerous joint operations,” said Mr. Heckler. “We also are working on the river with the U.S. Coast Guard, using both their boats and ours.”

The Sea Ark craft is new to the area, part of a continuing effort by the new Department of Homeland Security to better protect the northern border in the wake of the September 11 attacks on America. With the boat came additional manpower and equipment, and more has been promised.

Backing up the river patrols are aircraft with infrared, heat and motion detection equipment, along with dozens of infrared cameras and heat, motion and noise sensors hidden along the banks — all of which are monitored by CBP agents 24 hours a day.

“The southern border historically has gotten all of the money and the resources. It was like having a $10 down there and 5 cents up here,” Mr. Heckler said. “But that’s changing, and that’s good.”

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