Daines, Tester Discuss Northern Border Security with Homeland Security Pick

Congress passed Northern Border Security Review Act to study potential terrorism, criminal threats along Canadian border

By Dillon Tabish
Obelisks and a slash through the trees indicate the U.S.-Canadian border near Goat Haunt on Aug. 20, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, Donald Trump’s choice to lead the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is undergoing a confirmation hearing in Washington on Tuesday, and ahead of the meeting he sat down with Montana’s two Senators to discuss issues relevant to the Treasure State, including northern border security.

Republican Sen. Steve Daines met with Kelly on Jan. 9 to discuss national security priorities, including securing the southern and norther borders, as well as refugee vetting and enhancing cybersecurity.

“I was impressed with Gen. Kelly. He is a straight shooter. He understands what it will take to secure our borders. He understands what it will take to protect the American people,” said Daines, who is a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which has jurisdiction for DHS including nominations subject to Senate confirmation.

Kelly is a retired Marine general who formerly served as head of the U.S. military’s Southern Command, based in South Florida. He has more than 45 years of military service and was a commanding general in Iraq for nearly three years.

“I think that kind of background is needed to secure our borders and protect our nation,” Daines said.

The Associated Press reported that Kelly outlined his priorities as chief of Homeland Security by embracing Trump’s call for a strong border wall with Mexico.

Daines said he discussed the importance of securing the northern border with Kelly as well. The U.S.-Canadian border stretches nearly 4,000 miles across the continental U.S., including 545 miles across Montana.

“I reminded him that the northern border is something I’m concerned about as a Montanan and as an American. I invited him to come to Montana and spend time on northern border,” Daines said.

In contrast to the highly scrutinized southern border, the northern border can exist with a lower profile while presenting unique geographical and demographic challenges. It is largely remote and in many areas is extremely rugged and isolated, primarily the stretch along Northwest Montana.

Congress in December passed the Northern Border Security Review Act and President Obama signed it into law. The bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to study current and potential security issues and challenges along the U.S.-Canadian border. The Northern Border Security Review Act would provide the first significant analysis of the U.S.-Canadian border since 2010, when the Government Accountability Office conducted a similar assessment and determined the threat of potential terrorists entering the country from Canada was greater than through Mexico.

Daines said the northern border is an important trade route between Montana and Canada and must remain secured but without hinderances for commerce.

“We want to have an efficient flow of goods between the two countries but on the other hand we have to be aware of the threats,” Daines said.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester met with Kelly on Jan. 4 and discussed similar issues, including border and national security.

“The security and safety of all Montanans is a responsibility I never take for granted, and I will be working closely with the next Homeland Security Secretary to ensure that our borders are secure and law enforcement agencies are fully prepared to protect Montana and our nation,” Tester said after the meeting.

Tester, who serves on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he focused on four aspects of national security in his conversation with Kelly: border security; the Visa Waiver Program; REAL ID; and insider threats.

Tester said he pushed Kelly to address staffing shortages along the northern border, and to work more closely with communities across the Hi-Line to recruit more Montanans to join the Border Patrol so they can remain in their communities and serve the nation.

Tester also encouraged Kelly to support responsible investments in Operation Stonegarden Grants, which help coordinate security efforts between federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement officials along the northern border.

Tester said he sought commitment from Kelly to take further steps to reform the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens from certain countries to enter the U.S. as temporary visitors without first obtaining a visa from a consulate. For example, the perpetrators of the November 2015 attacks in Paris were French citizens and may have been eligible to travel to the United States under the VWP.

Tester also raised concerns regarding the REAL ID Act and the Department of Homeland Security’s role in establishing a nationwide driver’s license standard and storing personal information on a national database. Montana’s elected leaders have remained opposed to the REAL ID Act.