Akwesasne Leaders Meet With U.S. Customs And Border Protection
Akwesasne, ONTARIO —On September 1, 2009, Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Grand Chief Michael Mitchell, Chief Wesley Benedict and St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief James W. Ransom met with representatives of the United States Customs and Border Protection. Akwesasne leaders met with Robert Stephenson, Director for the Massena-Rooseveltown Port of Entry; Alan Whitcomb, Area Port Director; Tim Walker, Assistant Area Port Director; and Ray Purser, Chief, Massena-Rooseveltown Port of Entry; to discuss local concerns regarding the operation of the U.S. customs facility.Chief Ransom noted that, “We expressed our frustration with the lack of response from the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection to our requests that they address Mohawk concerns.” He added, “We are encouraged that the U.S. Customs staff present at the meeting indicated that they were aware of our concern and that they share our desire to build a better relationship going forward.”
The first Mohawk concern that Akwesasne leaders raised was why all traffic to Canada is being funneled into the seventh lane at U.S. Customs. U.S. Customs representatives indicated there were some major issues that led to the northbound road being closed and traffic being re-routed.
U.S. Customs representatives stated that the safety of workers was put at risk from vehicles speeding and passing in the northbound roadway. There were other times when individuals evaded Customs when coming south from Canada using the northbound road. This resulted in evaders driving in the opposite direction of the traffic. In addition, during the summer months some four wheelers were coming from Cornwall Island and going through the fields to evade Customs. Having people evade the Port presented a major problem and security risk that U.S. Customs needed to address.
Akwesasne leaders also expressed concerns with delaying the response time of emergency vehicles by routing them through the checkpoint. A bottleneck is often created as vehicles slow down for the speed bumps and it is making it difficult for fire, ambulance, and the police to do their jobs effectively. Mohawk leaders indicated that emergency vehicles respond to calls throughout Akwesasne and require special arrangements so they can better serve the community.
U.S. Customs representatives made it clear that they have no desire to restrict emergency vehicle access. Developing protocols for emergency vehicle to have quick access through the Port was a solution that everyone was interested in pursuing. Mohawk leadership expressed their willingness to work with U.S. Customs on these protocols.
In addition, Akwesasne leaders discussed the usage of lights at the seventh lane. They noted that it was causing a glare for drivers and creates a safety hazard. The U.S. Customs staff agreed to make adjustments to the light placement, but indicated that the lights are to help the cameras to record travelers through the checkpoint. The presence of cameras was another concern; however customs staff noted that the decision to use them is made by senior officials.
Akwesasne leaders and the U.S. Customs staff expressed their willingness to work cooperatively and develop an operational plan that would address local concerns and provide for the reopening of the northbound road. It would also provide for public safety and the ability of U.S Customs to do their job of ensuring that a safe and secure border crossing is maintained. An immediate measure that was agreed to was reducing the number of speed bumps at the checkpoint.
Grand Chief Mitchell stated, “We briefly discussed the idea of developing an educational plan to share measures with the community before the temporary checkpoint can be removed.” He added, “We are working to have it removed as soon as possible, but once it is gone there will be things that individuals can do to avoid a repeat of the checkpoint, such as maintaining the speed limit. We also discussed the idea of planning more cultural and community information sessions that would better inform customs officials, as well as when Akwesasne would be hosting events that would bring other Native people together; such as the Nations Cup, the Pow Wow celebration, or a Native leadership conference.”
The meeting ended on a positive note with the recommendation from the U.S. Customs representatives that Mohawk leadership consider having a regular meeting with them as a way to improve communication. The Mohawk leadership supported that idea.