Not long after completing law school, Aaron Heitke took a U.S. Border Patrol job and quickly learned that he preferred enforcing the law to practicing it. On Wednesday, the Minnesota native formally takes responsibility for the 861 miles of the U.S.-Canadian border in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
As chief patrol agent of the Border Patrol’s Grand Forks sector, he is taking command at a time of heightened security along what is considered the world’s longest common border. About 300,000 people and $1.5 billion in trade move across the border every day. About 200 Border Patrol agents, said to be 10 times more than existed on Sept. 11, 2001, patrol eight neighboring states within the sector.
The movement of weapons and drugs has been a top concern for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In addition, North Dakota’s oil boom in the Bakken region has meant an influx of people and problems. In fiscal year 2014, 514 arrests were reported, compared with 284 arrests in 2013 and 287 arrests in 2012, the Grand Forks Herald reported.
“There’s just a lot more people coming in to work out there and with it brings changes to a lot of those small communities,” Heitke said.
Expanding the sector’s intelligence program is high on Heitke’s agenda.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection, released its first unified plan to guide its U.S.-Canada border policies and operations called the Northern Border Strategy. Among the goals outlined by the plan were the deterrence and prevention of terrorism and illegal activity.
“We want to know as much as we can what the criminal element is doing inside and outside the United States,” Heitke said. “Our focus as an agency being to protect the United States.”
Border Patrol agents are increasingly relying on drones that patrol, conduct surveillance and assess disaster damage. It’s a big technological change from when Heitke began his Border Patrol career in 1998. Back then, he told the Economist magazine last year, binoculars were his main item of equipment.
“The ability we have to get much more accomplished with a lot fewer people covering a lot more territory,” he said, has been useful in combating the evolving methods of criminal activity.
Heitke, who assumed command of the Grand Forks sector in June, replaces Austin Skero, who was promoted and transferred to Virginia.
Heitke grew up in Paynesville near St. Cloud and earned degrees from the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the University of North Dakota School of Law. He moved up the ranks of the Border Patrol, serving in various capacities in different locations before becoming deputy chief patrol agent of the Havre sector in Montana in 2011.
Heitke, 43, is married with two young daughters.
“I’m excited to be back in the Midwest,” he said. “It’s now as close to as I can get to home.”