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'We're going to build that wall': Visiting Baltimore, VP Mike Pence champions Trump agenda, customs agents

Vice President Mike Pence brought his call for a more secure southern border to the Port of Baltimore, telling a crowd Friday he won’t rest until border agents have the necessary equipment, personnel — and barriers.

“We’re going to build that wall one way or another, I promise you,” Pence told the crowd.

He toured the port Friday afternoon and watched demonstrations of the equipment and methods agents use to scan shipping containers for drugs, guns and stowaways. The vice president praised U.S. Customs and Border Protection for seizing 827,000 pounds of drugs at the southern border last year. And he thanked the crowd of border agents for their continued work during the 35-day government shutdown.

“You all stood tall. You stayed on your watch in the midst of that shutdown,” he told them. “I’m here to say, ‘Thank you.’ But also to learn more about the work each and every one of you do.”

Another government shutdown looms if the White House and Democrats can’t reach a deal on border security. President Donald Trump had sought $5.7 billion to build a wall on the southern border, which Democrats rejected. Both sides have struck a more conciliatory tone in recent days, saying they’re hopeful a compromise may be reached. Temporary funding measures are set to expire Feb. 15.

In Baltimore, border agents have new high-tech equipment to scan the thousands of shipping containers that arrive each day. One device features a 15-foot boom that swings over a container to scan for hidden contraband. Another device — they call it the “ice cream truck” — is driven around a shipping container to read the contents inside. These systems can detect radiation, density and plants. Their most powerful equipment can penetrate 9 inches of steel. The agents can locate a stash of marijuana hidden inside a shipment of steel.

The pot would glow on a computer screen, said Michel Chausse, program manager for U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Baltimore office.

Decades ago, agents had to unpack and search a shipping container. The work was taxing and required several hours. The new and nimble equipment — it arrived within the last three months — allows agents to scan as many as 35 containers an hour, Chausse said.

Pence was impressed.

“Seeing the cutting-edge technology you use here gives me great confidence,” he told the crowd.

In Baltimore, border agents don’t often find hidden drugs. Smugglers mainly operate along the southern border.

Agents have found counterfeit Mercedes-Benz car parts. And last fiscal year, they recovered 130 stolen vehicles, mostly bound for West Africa, said Robert Hunt, chief of staff for the Baltimore office. The Port of Baltimore handles hundreds of thousands of cars, small trucks and tractors.

In addition, agents in Baltimore focus on the invasive species that hitch rides on ships and containers. In recent years, they have caught the egg sacs of spotted lanternflies and discovered invasive snails crawling on tiles from the Mediterranean, said David Ng, the agriculture specialist of the port.

Agents have also found gypsy moths and the seeds of invasive weeds, he said. Currently, one ship is awaiting fumigation at the port after inspectors found Khapra beetles infesting the food. The South Asian beetles are one of the world’s most destructive pests.

In his remarks, Pence focused on the drugs smuggled through the southern border. He said 300 people are overdosing on heroin and dying each week in America.

In January, border agents in Arizona stopped a produce truck from Mexico and found more than 250 pounds of fentanyl.

Pence addressed the crowd for about 15 minutes Friday, urging border agents to stay vigilant, telling them their work saves lives. He visited Portsmouth, Va., last week and also thanked Coast Guard members for their service during the shutdown.

Business, meanwhile, has been booming at the 312-year-old Port of Baltimore. Shipments have increased ever since the Panama Canal was widened three years ago. Now Asian manufacturers have a bigger shortcut to the U.S. East Coast.

Maryland officials say the port handles more sugar, cars, trucks and farm and construction machinery than any other in the country. Baltimore ranks second in exported coal. Overall, it ranks ninth for the dollar value of cargo and 12th for the tonnage.

The port handled nearly 600,000 shipping containers and 38.4 million tons of cargo in 2017 — the most tonnage since 1979. Officials have not released figures for for 2018, but they say the port is on pace for another record year.

In October, they welcomed the largest ship ever to visit Baltimore: the Danish Gunde Maersk, which is longer than three football fields and able to hold 11,000 shipping containers. With the amount of cargo increasing, agents have toughened up their security measures.

“We know that your work here is vital,” Pence told them. “We’re truly grateful.”

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/tim_prudente

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