Border towns face security crackdown
Published: Saturday, October 27, 2007
STANSTEAD, QUE. – Intentionally built on the border of the United States and Canada more than a century ago, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House is an enduring gesture of peace between two nations. But last month it played host to a unusually awkward moment.
While some locals from Stanstead, Que., gathered to celebrate a noted filmmaker in the area, four customs officers burst in on the festivities. They were looking for an illegal immigrant, someone who had crossed the street from Derby Line, Vt. — in effect entering Canada without checking into customs.
“Most of the time they're diligent, but I guess they're under severe orders,” said the town's Mayor, Raymond Yates, who was attending the event.
The suspect turned out to be a New York Times journalist, and they fined her $1,000.
For tourists visiting the neighbouring villages of Stanstead, Que., or Derby Line, Vt., the offence is easy to commit. More oblivious souls might not realize they had stumbled across an international frontier because no officers intercepted them. On some residential streets, outdated signs warn visitors to report — but they do not warn them to do it immediately, which is what newer Canadian law commands.
Locals, on the other hand, note that strategically placed cameras monitor their movements, so if they are planning an international trip that lasts longer than a few minutes, they had best hustle to the nearest customs port.
Now there is a new, emerging class of border-jumpers who have infiltrated this quaint, Norman-Rockwellian universe and turned it into an express lane of criminal activity: They are human smugglers and illegal immigrants, and they advocate an entirely different strategy to border crossing: Run for it. And they are doing it in droves.
Nine out of 10 of them are trying to sneak into the United States; one in 10 in the opposite direction, according to authorities.
Much to the frustration of locals in Stanstead (population 3,200) and Derby Line (population 800), their quiet towns are awfully well policed. This month, members of the RCMP's Integrated Border Enforcement Team [IBET] arrested 31 people, many of them Colombian, trying to enter Canada along a leafy intersection. Some carried maps depicting side streets that could be used to cross the border undetected.
“We caught them on our sensors and went straight to Lee and Church,” said Sergeant Normand Houle, whose four IBET teams monitor the unguarded roads around the official border crossings.
In the past nine months, 166 crossers have been arrested, Sgt. Houle said, and 21 of them charged. “There are two or three cases of this kind a week we know about,” he added, a spike his U.S. counterparts have also noted. “It's definitely a trend.”
Quiet and deliberate with the demeanour of a gentle math teacher, Sgt. Houle has many fresh stories from the border-crossing trenches. East Indian asylum seekers smuggled from Canada frozen in the snow last winter. Chasing other East Indians through the woods by foot with dogs. Neighbours on either side of the divide who have set up a smuggling operation. Or a visit from Canadian Senator Colin Kenny, who was inspecting the border in the area when the IBET team sprung to action when they saw a suspicious car with Florida plates scouting the border. “He must have thought we were acting, but this was for real,” Sgt. Houle said.
At first, Mr. Kenny, chairman of the standing Senate committee on national security and defence, did think it was staged, but he quickly found out it was the real deal. “IBET's doing a terrific job,” he said.
Too good a job, some locals would say. Made up of the former Eastern Township villages of Stanstead Plain, Rock Island and Beebe Plain, Stanstead has seen its share of smugglers, especially during Prohibition, but its quirky traditions, border lines and cross-national relationship have never been as challenged as they have since post-9/11 security concerns took hold of this frontier, which is about 160 kilometres from Montreal.
Usually an international line is demarcated by a low fence, bridge, or tree line, but this one looks as though someone grabbed a ruler and drew a line. As a result, the border snakes across street grids, and in some cases, slips across building floors. This historical quirk created a ministate: Residents share both public services and knotted bloodlines.
The towns use the same fire engines and drink the same water. They have the same bowling and curling leagues. Even the Rotary Club is binational. Residents here marry each other. For a while, they shared a hospital, which made for a lot of dual citizens.
Until about four years ago, they shared a bar named Wendy's, right across from Canada's one-booth port of entry. Taking advantage of Quebec's later closing time, Americans would pile in after their own bars had closed. Fights ensued, which would later spill out into the road. Projectiles would be thrown at border guards. “Glad that place closed,” one of them said.
Residents also share some architecture and some streets.
In the Haskell Library, for instance, visitors can step over a line of black tape indicating the international boundary to go from the stacks to the birch-panelled reading room. (They might also notice another line drawn 30 years ago, which arose from a spat between Canadian and American insurance companies over fire-damage liability.)
Across the street, residents of a small apartment building do not need to show up at the nearest port of entry if they cross the line inside the building. But if they leave the side of the building that opens on to a different country than the side they entered from, they need to report.
Two minutes away by car, on Canusa Street, houses with Maple Leaf flags face homes with the Stars and Stripes. The north side of the road belongs to Canada, the south belongs to the United States. In the event of a car accident, both the Surete du Quebec and Vermont State troopers are called in. Behind the street is a deep thicket that would be difficult to perpetually police.
In the face of heightened measures, including a proposal for a fence along three residential streets that marked prime crossing terrain, residents from both sides remain united in their anger. Many of them feel as though their freewheeling frontier has been turned into a surveillance state. Cameras follow their movements, border patrol trucks are a menacing presence, customs agents unforgiving.
One man I spoke to at Derby Line's only convenience store told me he married a Stanstead girl he met in his bowling league, but hates visiting his in-laws not because of typical son-in-law reasons, but as a result of the harassment he receives from U.S. Customs on the way back. Another American said his best friend was intercepted by U.S. border patrol at the edge of his own driveway.
“My sister was pulled over for no reason and was asked where she was going,” said Pierre, a resident who lives near one of the three roads on the Canadian side. He said he is tired of feeling as if it is his responsibility to come home from work and report on illegal aliens: “I don't know why this problem is ours.”
“It's sad that citizens of Stanstead and Derby Line have to pay for the consequences of what's going on down south,” said Mayor Yates, who also runs an appliance company.
While merchants complain that overzealous customs officials are slowing business, there is a growing concern in Washington that in general, the Canada-U.S. border is too lax.
A recent U.S. government investigation of the borders discovered gaping security holes that make it easy for terrorists to slip unnoticed into the country from Canada. “They're simply wide open, waiting to be crossed by anyone carrying anything — even a dirty bomb or a suitcase-type nuclear device,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican.
One solution is a fence. Proposed by a joint intelligence task force including IBET, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, and the Canadian Border Services Agency [CBSA], it is deeply unpopular among residents here. Citizens' groups will not acknowledge the proposal, leaving it in a holding pattern.
“It's like coming home and suddenly finding out that your neighbour has put up a fence,” Mr. Yates explained. “You think, 'What have I done to deserve this?' ”
The Mayor, who recently met with Stockwell Day, the Minister of Public Safety, to discuss the predicament, also sees a problem with logistics. “Who pays for it? Where does it go? It sure as hell ain't going to go on the Canadian side.”
The authorities recognize the difficulties as well. “We cannot lose sight of the fact that if we deal with specifics of that area in that way, it just might mean displacement to other areas,” said RCMP chief superintendant Mike Cabana, who is in charge of border integrity and who stressed that shared intelligence was the best way to combat the crime.
His U.S. counterpart stressed the same thing, and also spoke broadly about the fencing issue. “We will continue to assess and evaluate with our Canadian partners the risks and benefits of tactical infrastructure,” said Ronald Colburn, deputy chief of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
The fence or some kind of infrastructure would certainly help overextended police forces in the area.
“It's expensive to be everywhere at once,” said Sgt. Houle in an office on top of the custom's house at the Dufferin Street port. “We have to make decisions based on where we're most likely to see the benefits.”
Officers suggest that while a small percentage of human smuggling comes through the area's three ports, intensified scrutiny at the surrounding Quebec borders of Lacolle and Phillipsburg has influenced the influx of illegal immigration in the area. Sherbrooke now has a big Latino community, and this might explain why so many Hispanic people are suddenly making a run for the border.
Last Monday night, a group of Rotarians met just steps away from the border at the Old Custom's House restaurant. This international chapter prides itself on being the first of its kind, more than 70 years old. After everyone in the dozen-man group was assembled, a little grey-haired fellow scurried to a Yamaha keyboard and pushed out the opening strains of O Canada, which was sung in French with great vigour. Then came an equally loud version of God Bless America. Lastly, they delivered a wan version of Smile before sitting and getting down to business.
“I've never heard them sing this,” said the youngest attendee with a sheepish smile. “I don't know what this is about.”