The International Bridge, which crosses from Canada into Squaw Island, is a destination where illegal aliens attempt to cross into. The U.S. Border Patrol has a large presence there.
Matthew Bitterman, public information officer for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Buffalo station, shows off the detainee area at the station, which is located in Tonawanda, which patrols from Sunset Bay to Grand Island.
The U.S. Border Patrol admits they are not often seen. And that is the way that they like it.
But the Buffalo Station – which patrols from Southern Erie County up to Grand Island – is quite active in helping keep the area safe.
“If they’re here illegally, we arrest them,” said Matthew Bitterman, public information officer for the U.S. Border Patrol.
The process is a little bit different when someone is detained. According to Bitterman, when someone is apprehended by the Border Patrol, they can remain up to three days (although he said it is rare that they ever stay that long). They are taken to a Federal detention area. The closest one is in Batavia.
“They hold them. Detain them,” Bitterman said, noting that the prisoner is then given a notice to appear.
He said the punishment will depend on whether this is a first time offense or not.
When an arrest is made at the point of entry, Bitterman said the person is “charged criminally with illegal entry.”
This could lead to a misdemeanor and up to one year in prison.
When a person is caught more than once, there are multiple factors involved in determining what kind of punishment he or she would face.
“It kind of depends on what they were originally charged with,” Bitterman said.
The judge will weigh whether there are any extenuating circumstances involved, but if the detainee re-entered the country after deportation, the sentence could be up to 10 years in prison.
The U.S, Border Patrol is not just a land operation. There are six stations that patrol portions of New York State from Erie, Pa., to Wellesley Island.
“Boats are a part of our operation,” Bitterman said, noting that they work closely with Air and Marine.
“Lakes are technically Air and Marine,” Bitterman said, adding that the U.S. Border Patrol’s territory starts with the rivers.
However, since they normally have patrol out throughout the day, they are usually among the first responders to incidents either in rivers or lakes because they are already out on patrol, Bitterman said.
The Border Patrol also works with U.S. Customs, along with Air and Marine.
“We work hand-in-hand,” Bitterman said, adding they also work with local police agencies, including Hamburg, Evans and Eden.
“I want to say we get the most calls (from the Southtowns) from Evans,” Bitterman said.
Because they are narrower, rivers are a common area route for illegal aliens to attempt to enter the country.
Bitterman said in southern Erie County, one of the most common areas for illegal aliens to attempt entry is Sturgeon Point. He said one of the reasons for this is because it is the most direct route from Crystal Beach in Canada.
Among the arrests down there was what turned out to be a motorcycle gang that was caught smuggling about $1 million. Bitterman said it was a group of Brazilians and that a jet ski was seized.
There are several points along the Buffalo Station of the U.S. Border Patrol that are common.
This includes the Whirlpool and Squaw Island bridges. Bitterman said there is a mix of people attempting to gain entry through waterways or using railroad bridges. He noted it is difficult to enter through the railroad bridges because not only are there cameras present, there is also normally an agent there.
“The chances of making it are so small,” Bitterman said.
While there is not a lot of activity at places like Squaw Island, there is activity from time-to-time. Bitterman said two people attempted to enter into the country there in March from Canada and were caught.
He said at places like that you can also see such things as drownings and even prostitution.
On water, Bitterman said they come on all kinds of crafts, including canoes, kayaks and blowup crafts.
One of the more interesting ways happened in November, when an illegal alien from El Salvador, who didn’t know how to swim, tried to get into the United States without getting caught on the river.
“He was in a hoodie, a jacket and a pair of jeans,” Bitterman said, adding that he tried to guide through the river on a blowup mattress.
Part of the problem that many people have is not having a grasp on the currents in the river.
Bitterman said the U.S. Border Patrol was called for a rescue after a Cuban man tried to swim to Canada and did not make it far before he realized he made a mistake.
“He started screaming for help,” Bitterman said. “It turned into a rescue for us.”
Something that is common along the northern border is that many of these people came here for school, graduated, their Visa expired to be in the U.S., and they never left, said Bitterman.
While a large portion of the apprehensions are people of Mexican descent, Bitterman said during his time as a member of the Border Patrol, he has been part of detaining people from every continent except for Antarctica and Australia.
While the number of arrests have been up to about 2,000 at the Buffalo station, Bitterman said those numbers are changing.
“Buffalo sector has gone down the last couple of years,” he said.
In the fiscal year 2012 (which runs from Oct. 1-Sept. 30), the Buffalo station, which currently has 311 agents, made 1,143 apprehensions.
Bitterman believes a reason for the reduction in arrests is because the Buffalo station has a reputation as being difficult to gain entry into the U.S. by illegal aliens. The Buffalo station covers 341 miles of border.
He also said that working with other agencies helps, as they provide each other with vital information at times.
The U.S. Border Patrol also uses a pair of sensors, seismic and infrared, which allows them to more easily cover their territory.
“You see a little bit of everything up here,” Bitterman said.
He noted that marijuana-related arrests are common, with “some” cocaine apprehensions as well.
Bitterman, who is a West Seneca native, started out working in Eagle Pass, Texas.
He said the training, which is separated into two parts, includes learning to speak Spanish, firearm training, legal authorities and immigration law. The training takes place in Artesia, New Mexico. The nearest city to it is Roswell.
“Most of it is instructor training,” Bitterman said.
On land, Bitterman said the majority of vehicles used by the Border Patrol are Chevy Tahoes, mostly due to the terrain. There are some Dodge Chargers and one Crown Victoria left in the fleet.
The furthest south members of the Buffalo station will travel is around the Sunset Bay/Cattaraugus Creek area.
In the northern territory, after Grand Island, the Niagara Falls station patrols that region.
Paul Hinderliter is a Vessel Commander for the U.S. Border Patrol. He started the training for that role about a year-and-a-half ago for four weeks of training in Glynco, Ga., and has been cruising the waters as a commander for about a year.
“We take the boats out almost every day,” Hinderliter said, noting there are seven vessel commanders at the Buffalo station, and that after training, the station will eventually have two or three more vessel commanders.
When one of the boats is taken out, there has to be at least two people aboard, but only one has to be a vessel commander.
Hinderliter said he joined the program in part because there was a need for commanders. Although he grew up going out on boats, he never operated them until he joined the program.
“It worked out really well, and I enjoy it,” Hinderliter said.
As the temperatures rise, and summer approaches, Hinderliter said that this is the busiest time of year.
“We’re out there all the time,” Hinderliter said.
According to Hinderliter, among the only times they will not go out on the river is if there is ice. He said the problem is that if you get stranded, then there is nobody who can rescue you.
Hinderliter said he has seen some amazing and interesting things.
This included having to go out on Dec. 23 to “pluck Santa out of the water.”
Hinderliter said Santa goes out every year on that date as a tradition, but this time, things went awry.
“His sail broke,” Hinderliter said, adding that the Border Patrol successfully rescued Santa Claus and joked that they unexpectedly added another job to their list of duties.
“The Border Patrol saved Christmas that year,” he said.
According to Hinderliter, the boats weigh about 8,500 pounds. The boats are equipped with a form of a GPS system on the boat.
“It’s steel slamming on the water,” he said, adding that the vessels are out on the water at least four hours per shift, and some as much as seven hours.
Hinderliter said the boats to ensure safety, the boats are pulled and serviced about every 100 hours.
At times they will ride with the Coast Guard, as will State Troopers, because then different agencies can enforce different laws when an arrest is made.
Bitterman said part of what makes the U.S. Border Patrol a great agency is that they try not to be seen. He said there are often agents out on jet ski’s watching the waters, but they are unmarked and blend in. Those agents rarely respond to calls, but are used more for surveillance purposes.
“Not being seen is an advantage to us,” Hinderliter said.
“We’re definitely out there enforcing,” Bitterman said.
Most importantly, they want to make sure that people are out having fun, which is why they like their presence to full under the radar.
Hinderliter added they are involved in more rescues than anything else.
Bitterman said the reason for that is because they are the one unit that is already on the water.
“I think it’s a great thing were on the water all the time,” Hinderliter said.
The U.S. Border Patrol has been in existence since 1924. The stations in El Paso and Niagara Falls are both among its earliest stations. Bitterman said the agency was started in large part to stop “rum runners” from crossing the borders.
Bitterman said that to date, the only agent killed in the line of duty out of the Buffalo station was Frank Vidmar in the 1920s, which happened during prohibition.
There are other important facts Bitterman wants boaters crossing to or from International boundaries to know. There is a station at the Erie Basin Marina where boaters who have a NEXUS card can pull into and scan, which will allow the Border Patrol to know you are in the country legally. The next closest station is in Dunkirk.
Bitterman noted that the Border Patrol also constantly checks the area around the windmills which are not far from Woodlawn Beach State Park. He said there has not been any arrests made there yet, but they check it because there is a great view of the entire shoreline.
Ultimately, Bitterman said what is most important to agents is they want to keep the area protected.
“We’re part of the community, so we want to keep it safe,” Bitterman said.