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Minnesotans feel pinch at northern border
By Tom Robertson
Minnesota Public Radio
September 14, 2001

U.S. Customs officials are in a state of high alert at U.S border crossings as security tightens in the wake of this week's terrorist attacks. At the bridge crossing between International Falls and Fort Frances, Ontario, this means long lines for those trying to get into the United States. Travelers see it as a necessary inconvenience.

At one point Tuesday, the line of cars waiting to cross into the United States stretched over a mile. That's a common occurrence during the height of the summer tourist season, but unusual for mid-September.

Tom Kantos, port director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in International Falls, says his officers, along with U.S. Customs officials, are working in teams of three - opening trunks and hoods, searching luggage and containers, and using mirrors to check the undersides of vehicles.

"There's a lot more checking. Things are being assessed a little differently," he says. "It just takes a little longer to cross. I think it's going to be for quite a while."

The U.S. border with Canada is one of the largest open borders in the world - lots of open water and isolated forests. Kantos says there's little to prevent someone from crossing illegally and undetected into the country. He says given this week's terrorist attacks on the East Coast, it's likely Customs and the INS will see funding and staff level increases.

"A lot of people were concerned long before this incident. There's a lot of things that probably will happen, but until then, we'll do the best we can," he says.

Many of the travelers entering the country at International Falls Thursday afternoon were Americans returning from vacations and fishing trips. Despite being in line for about an hour at Customs, most were happy to see the tightened security.

When news broke of Tuesday's terrorist strikes of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, International Falls residents say they were, like the rest of the country, in a state of shock.

At Rainy River Community College, where 50 or so Canadians attend classes, officials were concerned the U.S. borders might be closed. Public Information Director Carol Grim says school officials decided to cancel classes as a result. "We were concerned about the students being able to get home, the ones that live over there and would want to be in their homes for the evening," she said.

Since Tuesday's attack, locals say they have been avoiding the border and the long lines. International Falls Chamber of Commerce Director Kallie Briggs says she's been flooded with calls from tourists concerned about their cross-border plans.

"We have had numerous calls with rumors that the border is closed," Briggs said.

Briggs has heard no complaints of loss of business by local merchants, but she says it may be too early to tell. She says the longer lines and tight security at the border is something locals are going to have to get used to.

"I think this is going to become a way of life. I don't think this is something that's going to last a day or two, or a week. I think it's going to become a way of life in traveling through borders," Briggs said.

Local Customs and INS officials would not comment on when or if the tightened security measures will be lifted. Calls to the regional Customs office in Pembina, North Dakota were not immediately returned.