- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 29, 2004

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has opened the first of five planned air and marine facilities aimed at increasing security along the U.S.-Canada border — where drug smuggling and the entry of illegal aliens have become significant problems.

The Bellingham, Wash., Air and Marine Branch is the first facility designed to augment northern border security with air and marine law enforcement, surveillance and airspace security authorities.

ICE spokesman Dean Boyd said that, at full capacity, the Bellingham station will have 69 federal law enforcement officers, pilots, aircrew and mission-support personnel from the agency’s Office of Air and Marine Operations. The facility will have a medium-lift helicopter, light-enforcement helicopter, multirole-enforcement Pilatus PC-12 aircraft, Secure Around Flotation Equipped (SAFE) fast patrol boat and a utility boat.

The Bellingham facility will conduct regular patrols and is equipped for rapid incident response.

Mr. Boyd said a second facility is planned later this year at Plattsburgh, N.Y. The remaining three, he said, will be located in Montana, North Dakota and Michigan.

“The Bellingham air marine branch adds another layer to northern border security,” said Mr. Boyd, adding that the facility will employ many of the same enforcement and interdiction capabilities used for decades along the southern U.S. border.

The newest addition to the ICE fleet of more than 130 aircraft is the Pilatus PC-12, a single-engine turbo-prop aircraft that will replace the agency’s aging C-12 aircraft. Equipped with an extensive sensor package, the new Pilatus has short-field takeoff and landing capabilities, enabling it to deploy rapidly and operate safely in remote areas.

The SAFE boats were added to the ICE fleet in 2003. They are fabricated marine-grade aluminum hull vessels with a polyethylene closed-cell foam collar that provides stability and buoyancy. Mr. Boyd said the collar system cannot deflate and endanger the crew, making the vessel ideal for performing missions in rough seas and in areas congested with waterborne debris.

The ICE Office of Air and Marine Operations is assigned the task of protecting Americans and critical infrastructure through the coordinated use of air and marine law enforcement. It seeks to detect, interdict and deter terror and criminal acts as they relate to the unlawful movement of people, money and goods across U.S. borders.

Mr. Boyd said the air and marine office has been engaged along the southern border and in the Caribbean for 35 years, but expanded its mission this month to the northern border to “provide critical air and marine law enforcement capability and investigative and surveillance support to other federal agencies for counterterrorism, anti?money-laundering efforts, weapon smuggling, and intelligence operations.”

The Office of Air and Marine Operations has a staff of more than 1,000 law enforcement and mission support personnel, a fleet of 130 aircraft — including helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft — and 70 vessels, including 39 high-speed interceptor craft.

It operates in Florida, Texas, California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Virginia, Washington state and New York, and maintains a standardization and training facility in Oklahoma.

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