LYNDEN, Wash. • For years, Larry DeHaan and his wife biked a few hundred yards up a dirt road from their dairy farm on the border to visit friends in Canada. No passports were needed. Canada has been, almost literally, their back yard for nearly 40 years.
To them and many other residents along the 49th parallel in Whatcom County, the border separating the two nations was just on paper.
Then the twin towers fell.
A decade after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, life on the northern border has changed: A passport is required to cross, dozens of U.S. Border Patrol agents drive these rural roads and surveillance helicopters hover above pasturing cows. Many community members, including DeHaan, have protested the government’s increased presence.
“I’m all for border security, but they got to treat us right,” said DeHaan, who posted a sign on his dirt road asking government vehicles to stay off. DeHaan said he has had to retrieve many of his cows from a bog on his property after they were startled by low-flying helicopters.
“I think some of them are nice guys,” he said. “(But) there are some agents who don’t have common sense or know how to work with people.”
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the 4,000-mile northern border was deemed insecure. Worried that terrorist cells would try to cross into the country from Canada, security was beefed up with hundreds of Border Patrol agents and other officers, and with new technology.
But in this corner of the country, the manpower spike has created tensions between local residents and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It reached a flashpoint earlier this year when DeHaan’s neighbor — Wayne Groen — was arrested and subsequently sentenced to two months in federal prison for shining a big flashlight at a CBP surveillance helicopter that was flying over his property.
“The air police are arrogant (expletive),” said berry farmer Darryl Ehlers, who lives on the border a few miles from DeHaan’s farm. “Even if he (Groen) screwed up, there was a vendetta. They made an example out of him.”
The community rallied around Groen, calling for community meetings with border officials and demonstrating in the streets. But Groen’s arrest is not the only incident that has riled up residents on Washington’s border.
In the Olympic Peninsula, Border Patrols agents have stepped up patrols resulting in the arrests of illegal immigrants, including farm and forest workers, drawing the ire of immigrant rights activists there.
For a few months in 2009, agents also set up road checkpoints that were halted after a wave of complaints that included the local congressman. International ferry runs and bus stations continue to be monitored by agents, even after protests.
“We reach out and educate (the public). We tell them what our job is, what is our responsibility,” said U.S. Border Patrol Agent spokesman Richard Sinks. “Their opinions are their own personal opinions. We’re just here to do our job. If somebody doesn’t understand our job, we’d love to educate them.”
Despite the higher profile, arrests of illegal immigrants by the Border Patrol have declined every year since 2001 in the Blaine sector, which covers parts of Washington, Alaska and Oregon. That number totaled more than 2,000 in 2001 and dropped to less than 700 last year. In the Spokane sector, which covers eastern Washington, the number dropped as well, from more than 1,300 ten years ago to less than 400 last year, according to agency figures.
Sinks said the numbers have declined because they reflect deterrence brought by the number of agents now present and the technology being used. He also said the agency’s tasks have changed. It no longer does as many jail checks for illegal immigrants, or worksite enforcement actions. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement presently performs those tasks.
Chief Thomas Schreiber, spokesman for CBP, says his agency’s goal is to keep the flow of people and commerce going smoothly at the U.S.-Canada border while also keeping the country safe. “Sept. 11 was a wakeup call,” he said.
The Peace Arch crossing in Blaine, the third busiest in the nation, has been expanded by two lanes and retrofitted with technology to detect radiation and read license plates. Under national mandates, travelers now need to provide a passport or an enhanced license to enter the U.S. Before Sept. 11, the basic requirement was an oral declaration of your citizenship.
Away from the ports, more than 30 remote control cameras have been installed along an 89-mile stretch of land border. Numerous hidden motion sensors lay dormant until someone or something steps too close.
Combined, CBP and Border Patrol have added about 400 hundred officers and agents to this region, bringing government paychecks to the local economy.
The western side of the Canadian border in Washington stretches from the Cascade mountains, through forest lands and berry fields, to the Puget Sound. It has been a corridor for illegal activity for decades, from today’s South American cocaine to booze during the Prohibition.
And while the added security was mandated after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the threat of terrorism was here well before that.
In 1999, customs officers in Port Angeles spotted a nervous Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian national who later was convicted on multiple counts for plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. Custom agents found explosives in the trunk of his car when he drove off a ferry from Canada.
Two years earlier, Border Patrol agents arrested Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer in Bellingham. Later on, after a federal judge reduced his bail, Abu Mezer went to New York where he tried to plot an attack on the subway system.
The Border Patrol spokesman said the agency wants to hear from community members who feel they haven’t been treated well. Sinks said agents have been told to be friendly.
“There are times agents are riding through a property, they’re so focused, they may not even think about a wave, they probably don’t have time to stop,” Sinks said. But “if it’s possible it’s always nice to throw a wave in the air and if possible to stop and chat.”
“Our agents are aware of what’s going on, they read the news,” Sinks added.
DeHaan said air patrols seem to have decreased around his property since the Groen case. He’s still not happy, though, with how border life has changed.
“This is not the southern border. This is not a war zone,” he said, moments after a Border Patrol vehicle drove up the dirt road. “They want to make into a war zone.”