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Bradley Waikel, commander of the Niagara Falls Station for the U.S. Border Patrol Buffalo Sector.
Bradley Waikel, commander of the Niagara Falls Station for the U.S. Border Patrol Buffalo Sector.

U.S. Border Patrol tackles issue of illegal border crossings

Mon, Feb 12th 2024 09:50 pm

Falls Station commandeer discusses problem, provides insight; Waikel urges residents to be proactive & call

Story and Photos By Terry Duffy


Responding to concerns over a spike in illegal border activity on the lower Niagara River, agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection provided some answers to residents in a well-attended information session last Thursday at Porter Town Hall.

Bradley Waikel, commander of the Niagara Falls Station for the U.S. Border Patrol Buffalo Sector, opened by discussing the many roles of border agents who comprise the Buffalo Sector. He said the operation covers some 25,464 miles in the eastern Great Lakes, and Buffalo is one of 20 such nationwide in the U.S.

Addressing the Issue

“Every agency is working with us on this problem,” Waikel said. “We’ve had CBP, U.S. Coast Guard; office of Field Operations; Lewiston PD, Youngstown PD, Niagara County Sheriffs, State Police, NY Parks Police. There is not a single agency that has not come with us to help.”

So, what are Border Patrol agents contending with right now?

“We’re seeing with people crossing in rafts,” Waikel said.

This type of activity is nothing new. Waikel said it has been a part of life in the lower river for a century, dating to 1924 when agents monitored bootlegging during prohibition. “It has never completely gone away.

“What we’re seeing now has always been here. I’ve been here for four years; we have always had people crossing the river. We’ve always had drugs crossing the river. What has changed between now and then is the frequency.”

He said the illegal crossings in the lower river have increased 300% to 400% in just months.

“(In the past), we might see a raft maybe four, five times per year. Since November, we’ve had over 20 incidents,” Waikel said. “That’s a significant increase for us. Going from three or four per year to more than 20 since November.”

As far as location and frequency, it’s “the whole lower river,” Waikel said. “There is not a place on the lower river where we haven’t seen a raft landing.”

Waikel said main target areas have been around Lewiston Landing, around Joseph Davis State Park, “But where we’ve seen the majority of them have been around Youngstown Estates, Collingwood Estates and in Youngstown, where we’ve seen most of these rafts landing on shore.

Of the more than 20 such events, “the majority of them have been inflatable rafts,” Waikel said. “We have seen some regular boats, too. Most of them have been small dinghies, fiberglass or aluminum boats. … We had an 18-foot aluminum boat with a motor come across (Feb. 8) about 4 a.m.

“They’re coming across. Almost always at night, because criminals don’t like to be caught. We have seen everything from a single person crossing in a tiny little raft rowing across, to four to five boats launched at the same time with one, two people coming across, to inflatable boats with four people in them, to an aluminum boat with five people in it.

“Each event, with one to five people coming across, always at night. Every single time of these events, when we encounter people, they are soaking wet. We’re talking November (to) February. The group that crossed earlier this morning, it was 25 degrees, water temp hovering around 35 degrees.

“That is my greater fear with these: It keeps happening, unfortunately someone is going to be lost in the water. This is a safety thing here. They’re not from here, they don’t know the dangers. They cross the river, but they don’t stay here. Every single person is trying to go somewhere else.”

Of those crossing, he added, “They want to avoid an encounter with you, with anyone. They’ll either have someone to pick them up or they’re on their own. They’ll hide in different areas, a hedgerow, an unlocked shed, a summer residence, an unlocked house. Their intention is to get away.

“My advice is to lock your doors; if you’re not doing it now, you should.”

A view of the overflow crowd at Porter Town Hall for last week’s information session.


How Are They Entering?

Waikel explained, “Canada has this thing called electronic travel authorizations (ETAs). It’s an app. You pay $7 for it. You can cross into Canada by plane without a visa. Mexico is one of the countries that can do it now, and there’s about 50-60 other that allowed to do it.”

“That means there’s a minimal amount of vetting, people from Mexico can fly directly into Canada. One of the biggest is in Toronto; it’s only 30 miles across the lake. My station happens to be the closest border patrol station to Toronto. That hub is being fueled by these ETAs, and that’s where these people are coming from.

“They connected with a network of smugglers. What we’re seeing up here is a spiderweb of bad people that are all connected somehow. It’s one guy knows an immigrant population; another guy knows how to get them down towards Niagara Falls, another guy (has vehicle access). All this network comes together, and that’s what starts moving people.

“The smugglers, all that they care about is the bottom line. To them it’s a business; the people who are getting smuggled (they) don’t see them as people. To a smuggler, they’re only a commodity. It’s why we’re seeing crossing the river when it’s only 15, 20 degrees outside.”

What Should River Region Residents Do In the Event of an Encounter?

“If you see something, say something,” Waikel said. “If you see something abnormal, give us a call. Don’t try to transport them; you could be cited for aiding and abetting.

“When we see them as law enforcement, we’re going to catch them. We want those smugglers; they’re the ones that are driving this. They’re the ones that are putting people into real danger. We’re working with Homeland Security investigations, with Canadian law enforcement, and we’re working with all our local and state partners to make that happen. Our job is to build these cases up, to get those folks in jail. That’s how you ultimately stop it.”

Waikel said he expects illegal crossings to continue until, “collectively, we’re successful in making it (that it’s) no longer an attractive place (here) and they’re not making money. Smugglers only care about the bottom line; they’re going to move people wherever they think they can, as long as they’re making money.

“We will keep what we’re doing as law enforcement, attacking this and keep catching these smugglers until it becomes unpopular to continue doing it.”

Waikel closed by urging residents who may encounter any such activity to contact the Border Patrol at 1-800-331-0353, or call 911 to reach area law enforcement.

“If you see something, say something,” he stressed.

Waikel said agents along the northern border have caught illegals from 79 different countries. “The Buffalo Sector alone has caught 21. In rafts, mostly from Mexico, from India, Pakistan, Colombia, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, pretty much every Central American country.

“Most of the people we are catching are what we call economic migrants. They are people coming here looking for work. They’re not looking to break into someone’s house; they’re looking for work, to move on, get work.”

However, “There’s also sex offenders, gang members, illegals who assault,” Waikel said. “Not everyone crossing is a good person. You don’t know; until we bring them into our station, run biometric checks, we don’t know their history either.”

“So, if you see someone hiding in your neighborhood, hiding in your backyard, don’t mess with them. Call. Don’t try to be a hero; you don’t know who they are.”

More About the Niagara Falls Station

The responsibilities of the Niagara Falls Station for the U.S. Border Patrol Buffalo Sector involve managing the area’s immigration concerns and all illegal activity. This includes field operations management of the area’s bridges, airports, transit stations and ports, as well as customs and transit security personnel (TSAs), and the sector’s air and marine monitoring responsibilities.

“The Niagara Falls Station covers all of Niagara County; we are one of six (in the Buffalo Sector),” Waikel said. “I have 75 miles border that I’m responsible for – 25 miles in the Niagara River and 50 miles of Lake Ontario. On a day-to-day basis, it means I am very heavily optics focused,” Waikel said.

Waikel said Border Patrol agents here monitor three areas of potential threats: illegal crossings entering from the northern or southern borders and of individuals being distributed throughout the U.S. for economic reasons in search of work; those entering by various transit modes with illicit materials and intent; and various entry point issues – things and people coming across illegally and entering the country.

He explained Border Patrol agents have a variety of resources at their disposal to monitor activity, including “Cameras; several equipped with both day and night cam. We can see who is out there, in the dark, in the daytime. Those cameras are operated remotely, they go to our dispatch center on Grand Island where they are watched 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our agents can remotely monitor them in the field to assist our dispatch center and also monitor any traffic we may see.”

On the water, the Niagara Station has two marine vessels for patrols.

“We have large group of agents who are trained and we are floating almost year-round,” Waikel said. “Our agents are out there in all types of weather.”

Waikel also spoke on the expanded use of SUAS equipment, otherwise known as drones.

“We launch them; it allows us to see something on the water,” he said. “We can check the river, see if something is happening right now, or search of old rafts.”

He said agents employ more conventional means for monitoring such as ATVs, bicycles, etc., along with what Waikel called, “unattended ground sensors. We have a myriad of sensors we can put out into the riverbanks and along the shore to help us know when someone is crossing, comes up on that shore when they’re not supposed to. What that does is that it signals our agents so they can go and respond and decide if a law enforcement action is needed.”

Detailing operations, he said the Buffalo Sector’s management team is responsible for strategic guidance and enforcement priorities in Buffalo-Niagara. This is overseen by means of the Niagara Frontier Field Command Group, which is comprised of all federal agents, state, county and local police, and Canadian law enforcement.

“We are meeting on a monthly basis, exchanging intelligence, information, and we are planning operations on how, together, we can address threats,” Waikel said of the focus on illegal border activity. “We have found that the best way to address threats is to leverage the totality of government against it. This is not just one agency that is out there working on these problems, this the entirety of the whole scope of government coming together.”

One of these ways is a program called Operation Stonegarden.

“Stonegarden is a federal grant that is managed by the Border Patrol and it allows us to give money to state, county and local law enforcement for border security. We provide equipment; we can put money towards overtime, and that is a huge tool that allows me to go the county, individual departments and ask them to put additional patrols in an area, and we pay the bill. It’s a double bonus for you.”

Due to the increase in activity, he said Operation Stonegarden funds in the Niagara Station have been directed toward expanded monitoring in the lower Niagara River.

“It gives additional patrols out there for me to keep an eye on the river, (and) additional patrols out there to keep you safer,” Waikel said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”

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