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01/12/2017

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Teamwork outweighs challenges for HSI Massena

Teamwork outweighs challenges for HSI Massena
Editor’s note: The following story is the latest in a series of features highlighting ICE’s smaller field offices.

“Moose Night” has become very popular over the past few years at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Massena, New York, field office.

It began when a law enforcement member of the nearby Quebec Provincial Police department would go hunting and bring moose meat to the HSI Massena office while in town. It has since morphed into a highly-anticipated event that brings together the staff in the small town of approximately 10,000 residents located along the St. Lawrence River just south of the U.S.-Canada border.

“It’s a great way to get together and team-build,” said HSI Massena Resident Agent in Charge (RAC) Russell Linstad. “It’s such a small group here and there’s not a lot to do [in Massena], so you have to do those types of events.”

The team at HSI Massena consists of special agents, intelligence research specialists and mission support specialists. In 2012, the office created a Border Enforcement Security Task Force that now employs full-time and part time personnel from 23 state, local, and federal U.S. and Canadian agencies.

HSI Massena’s area of responsibility (AOR) covers St. Lawrence and Franklin counties. Due to its geographic layout, Massena is an easy location for criminal organizations to exploit, making it a prime target area for smuggling. The Akwesasne Mohawk Indian reservation is frequently exploited.  During the summer, criminal organizations use boats to smuggle contraband across the St. Lawrence River, while during the winter, snowmobiles are used. Not only does the geography makes it a prime area for smuggling, but having such a large border crossing area makes it very easy for organizations to exploit the area. It is well documented that criminal organizations from all over Canada and throughout the United States utilize this area.

Massena is attractive to criminals because they don’t have to worry about being in a major city and look over their shoulder. They feel safe in a smaller community and take advantage of it.

“There are certain routes these organizations use in the summer that are different in the winter, so we do have to change investigative and operational strategy, according to the geography and where they will be traveling and smuggling people and drugs,” Linstad said. “Our techniques don’t change, but it does change their techniques of how they move product.”

Winters are especially brutal in Massena as temperatures regularly drop to the negative digits. According to Linstad, who was named HSI Massena RAC in 2014, the climate makes investigations difficult at times, but experienced agents are able to manage the frigid conditions. On the other hand, new agents assigned to Massena are shocked and sometimes have a hard time adjusting to the temperatures. 

It’s just one of the challenges the small office faces. With the long winters and lack of industry in the area, employee retention is an additional concern for HSI Massena. The office is located in such a remote location, and the town lacks many resources, so once people get here they want to leave right away.

“It’s very difficult to get people to want to stay because there’s just not a lot here. Not a lot of jobs for agent’s significant others or family members,” Linstad said. “It makes it very difficult and challenging to make people want to come here and when you get them here to want to stay in this location. Most of the time, you have to get someone who’s from this area who wants to stay.”

For Linstad and others who have stuck it out for the long haul, they understand there will be turnover, but overall the staff continues to make it work.

The lack of industry and jobs in an area brings with it a lot of issues. In the Massena AOR, that issue has become heroin. Over the past few years, heroin has filtered into Massena, the reservation and surrounding towns. As a result, local agencies have reached out to HSI Massena requesting assistance in battling this heroin issue.

“We have run three long-term, complex investigations based on this issue. We have worked with the other agencies to try and combat this heroin issue in this small community,” Linstad said. “The problem occurs when once we take an organization down, they very quickly replace each other and we get another organization back in this area. They know it’s an area that’s very fruitful.”

In addition to drug crimes, HSI Massena investigates child pornography, human smuggling and financial crimes. Like other small offices, HSI Massena special agents aren’t pigeonholed in investigating one particular crime and have the freedom to pursue many HSI investigative priority areas.  Having an outstanding working relationship with its local partners makes HSI Massena very visible to the citizens in its AOR, thus creating a sense of community.  

That sense of community and family is key to the success of HSI Massena. 

“We have a strong core group of people and I think that’s something that’s helpful and keeps us active as an office,” Linstad said. “It’s such a small group, so you have to rely on each other. I think that’s one of the benefits on working here. We really get to know each other and are able to work together as a team.”

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Last Reviewed/Updated: 01/17/2017