ICE HSI Blaine: The epicenter of border investigations
Located along the northern most part of Interstate 5 in Washington State, sits the tiny town of Blaine. With a population of approximately 4,500, Blaine is geographically positioned near the point where all transportation comes across the border between the United States and Canada.
It’s the prototypical border town where most government employees live about 15-20 miles away in nearby towns such as Ferndale and Bellingham, traveling to Blaine only for work. Around the small community, you can find a few stores here and there, a central public high school complex, a couple of gas stations and restaurants, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Blaine field offices.
As home to one of the largest commercial ports of entry on the United States-Canada border, Blaine and its surrounding region is a picturesque blend of land and sea where citizens of both countries have the option to move around by car, boat, plane and train. Because of that, the area presents a unique challenge to HSI Blaine special agents and border patrol counterparts as they work to combat criminal activity.
“We see all kinds of passenger and commercial vehicles come through our area. We also deal with recreational and commercial boat traffic,” ASAC Ostrovsky said. “There are a lot of opportunities for transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) to thrive because of the diverse transportation modes in our area.”
Despite being in a small border town, HSI Blaine has the largest group of federal criminal investigators north of Seattle. The Blaine office has a total of 53 full-time employees and 16 full-time task force officers (15 of which are part of the Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST) program). In addition to the agency workforce, Blaine BEST houses officers from all border law enforcement partners and stakeholders from both sides of the border, all of whom are significant players responsible for carrying out the HSI mission.
According to ASAC Ostrovsky, whose career spans nearly 30 years, because of the openness of the border, there are plentiful smuggling opportunities and vulnerabilities. During his time in Blaine, the sophistication of the individuals involved in border crimes has increased steadily as they target a high volume of travelers involved in trusted traveler systems. Criminals also exploit the terrain in the area concealing themselves from view using agricultural fields, and from radar using the nearby national park and mountainous areas on both sides of the border.
Over the years, contraband in the area has shifted from bulky high-grade marijuana smuggling to smaller pill and powdered forms of MDMA ecstasy, which is harder to detect and creates an increased need for HSI to generate proactive leads.
“Most of the TCOs we are investigating are Canadian based. Most of our targets live in Canada and are conducting smuggling and other criminal activities at and beyond the border,” ASAC Ostrovsky said. “In this geography, we have to be nimble and highly capable in many different environments, whether we are working in the maritime environment, in the national forest or within the urban areas along the I-5 corridor.”
As a critical location within HSI Seattle’s area of responsibility, HSI Blaine often serves the needs of its neighboring offices when it comes to resources for their respective operations and investigations.
Operated out of HSI Blaine, the HSI Seattle Rapid Response Team (RRT) has a significant strategic vantage point for tracking and responding to potential hazards impacting those located within Seattle’s city proper. RRT members participate in regular training exercises and are proficient in on-site security, structural entry and egress procedures, ready to respond with resources and equipment anytime and anywhere within the Seattle area of responsibility.
Small northern border towns near agency field offices such as HSI Blaine have been viewed by many for years as the “new frontier,” according to ASAC Ostrovsky. Many agents who have come to the northwest genuinely want to work in the diverse environment. In Blaine, and similar offices, agents are looking for different challenges than those presented at the international airports, seaports and in larger metropolitan areas.
“It’s the type of mission and area that draws you in,” ASAC Ostrovsky said. “There are interesting and fun challenges we face every day making the work we do exciting and rewarding.”