Heightened security at U.S.-Canada border catching few terror suspects
Agent calls it 'immigration dumpster diving'
By NADJA DROST
April 19, 2009
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Two Border Patrol agents board a bus in upstate New York, asking everyone “What's your nationality?” Prove you're allowed to be here.
A canine barks at a knapsack. Its owner is a legal Chinese refugee with fear in her eyes. Border Patrol agents have found her with a marijuana cigarette. Hours later, she's still being detained.
This is the face today of the U.S. Border Patrol in the North. Operating up to 100 miles from Canada with a federal mandate to catch terrorists, agents now crouch in the Vermont snow, ride horseback in Montana and patrol ferry terminals in Washington state. For thousands of working immigrant families, it is a frightening specter.
Public data obtained by Hearst Newspapers show the U.S. government, despite a massive injection of resources and staff to guard against terrorists crossing the Canadian border, is mostly catching ordinary illegal immigrants — creating a backlog of court cases and a flurry of protest from the public about random highway stops and bus or train inspections.
“The muddling of counter-terrorism and immigration enforcement is the single biggest mistake we've made since 9/11,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations.
Nationwide, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has seen its budget almost double in the last 5 years to $11 billion in 2009. Prior to 9/11, there were 340 border patrol agents watching over 5,000 miles of border with Canada. Today, there are 1,530.Critics decry what is happening.
“Don't tell me that putting more people on the ground is going to prevent terrorists from coming,” said Randall Larsen, director of the Institute for Homeland Security and author of “Our Own Worst Enemy.”
Post 9/11 changes
The CBP took on both border and immigration enforcement when it was created in 2003 under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It includes both customs and inspections agents at ports of entry, and border patrol responsible for areas between those ports. The CBP's top goal: prevent terrorists and their weapons from entering the country, as well as illegal immigrants, criminals and drug smugglers.
Following 9/11, the government looked northward toward the porous border with Canada, considered by CBP and FBI officials more vulnerable to terrorist infiltration than the southern border. Its immensity and terrain present a challenge.”A person looking at the border thinks, 'How can you protect it?'” said Azel Price, public affairs officer for CBP's Buffalo sector. “You can't.”
Price said the CBP has increased intelligence, manpower and technology. It collaborates more with Canada. Air and Marine operations are more frequent. Motion sensors, remotely operated cameras and unmanned aerial vehicles detect crossings.
“The first priority should be information and intelligence and it should be before anyone reaches the 49th parallel,” said Frank Cilluffo, head of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.
John Pikus, Special Agent-in-Charge for the FBI's Albany division, which covers 400 miles of border south of Montreal, said increased intelligence and information-sharing has made the northern border safer since 9/11.
That's the hidden face of border security. Visible are the border agents in olive uniforms. Northern illegal crossings are less than 1 percent of those on the southern border, leading critics to accuse the Border Patrol of overzealously targeting southbound immigrants who don't pose a threat to society. Border Patrol officials say train stations, airports and transportation hubs like the Rochester bus station along the Syracuse-Rochester-Buffalo corridor are productive because they are gateways for people traveling from New York to the Midwest.
Last year, Rochester's Border Patrol station made 1,523 apprehensions, but 87 percent were for misdemeanors and only 0.05 percent led to successful criminal prosecutions. Azel Price, public affairs officer for CBP's Buffalo Sector, acknowledged that most apprehensions are of illegal immigrants. “If you look at our apprehensions, a small percentage have anything to with terrorism,” Price said.
A Hearst Newspapers analysis of records provided by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a public interest research group, found that of all the national security and terrorism charges filed in federal district courts along the northern border since 2001, only three were based on referrals made by CBP. In other words, there is scant record of northern border enforcement catching terrorists.
That isn't to say the effort doesn't produce results. Steve Cribby, spokesperson for the Border Patrol, said border agents, as opposed to customs inspection agents, turn apprehensions over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which can in turn lead an investigation or hand it over to another agency such as the FBI in cases of terrorism. Still, ICE referred only 16 such prosecutions since 2001.
Officials at the FBI, Border Patrol and ICE say terror suspicion cases can easily originate with a referral or phone call from Border Patrol, but there are no records that indicate how often this may happen. An examination of all Department of Justice press releases since 9/11 revealed only one terrorism case in northern border states where CBP was credited assisting in the investigation.
In fact, 90 percent of prosecutions filed by CBP last year were for ordinary immigration charges, mostly for violations such as re-entering the country following deportation or entering illegally.
“They may be catching an impressive number of folks, but are they really catching the people that should be high on their priority list?” asked Wally Ruehle, director of the immigration program at Rochester's legal aid clinic.
On Valentine's Day in New York, Chet Childers, 36, married Tetyana Tsymbal, 26, of Ukraine. Tsymbal's work visa had expired, and the couple wanted to wait until they arrived in Childers' native Washington to file her paperwork for permanent residency.
But on their westbound Amtrak train three days after their wedding, border patrol agents boarded the train in Syracuse and took Tsymbal off the train.
The next morning, she called her husband from the county jail. “That minute and 20 seconds was spent reassuring her that I would do everything I could to help her,” said Childers four days later over the phone from Chicago. “That was the last time I talked to her.”
Tsymbal spent almost a week in jail until her husband paid a $5,000 bond. They are now in Washington awaiting her hearing in immigration court.
Almost all cases seeking the court removal of a non-citizen go through immigration court, which is a central means for Border Patrol to deport unwanted immigrants.
Agent: Most apprehensions “absurd”
Data provided by TRAC showed that suspicion of a criminal violation — which include those not normally thought of as 'criminal' such as re-entering following deportation — was the reason to seek removal in only 16 percent of individuals charged in immigration courts along the northern border between 2004 and 2006. Only two out of over 75,000 charges were terrorism-related.
Barbarah Brenner, an immigration attorney in Colonie, N.Y., questioned “the value of devoting scarce money and personnel to people who have simple immigration violations, meaning they have no criminal record.”
Groups who work with immigrants accuse the Border Patrol of targeting immigrants who have come here to work and lead a commendable life. Cribby, at Border Patrol's national office, said that is untrue. “Our intention is to stop any type of illegal entry between the ports of entry.”
But a Border Patrol agent in upstate New York who did not want his name used due to concern he could lose his job said most of the immigrants he apprehends haven't come over the border recently — they are traveling domestically and have lived here for years in many cases.
“We hold everyone; it's absurd,” the agent said, adding Border Patrol in upstate New York commonly describe their work as “immigration Dumpster-diving.”
But other agents say it's worth it. “If through the whole year, we get one [terrorist], we've done our job,” said Adrian Cotsworth, head of Rochester's Border Patrol Station. And if they don't, that doesn't necessarily mean they aren't being effective, agents said. It's difficult to measure how many people are deterred from trying to enter the country because of increased border patrol presence, they said.
In 1999, Ahmed Ressam boarded a ferry from British Columbia with a car trunk full of explosives meant to blow up Los Angeles International Airport. He was caught at a routine customs inspection when he docked in Port Angeles.
“That person gives the reason or the excuse to do all of this,” said Lisa Steiffert, an immigration attorney in Seattle.
In 2008, Border Patrol started inland checkpoints on the highway joining the towns of Port Townsend, Forks and Port Angeles. Agents patrol the streets of Forks and Port Townsend and board buses to Seattle. Their presence on this bucolic corner of the country has grown from four agents in 2005 to 25.
Needra Reed, the mayor of Forks, said Border Patrol activity has generated fear among legal and illegal immigrants alike. She said thousands of community members rallied unsuccessfully to save two teens who had lived in the U.S. almost their whole lives — a high school valedictorian and the wrestling team's star — from being deported to Mexico after they were stopped at a roadblock.
Father Thomas Nathe has seen Sunday mass attendance at his Forks parish — half of whose members are immigrants — plummet when the checkpoints started because immigrants feared crossing streets to church.
In parishes in nearby Port Angeles and Squim, undocumented immigrants share pews with the border agents they fear, separated by their opposing roles of fugitive and captor, but protected by their faith. “It creates for an interesting parish dynamic,” said Nathe.
Need said her American constituents find the checkpoints offensive. “This is America,” she said. “This is not Poland or Russia where you have to be questioned six miles from the home where you live about your citizenship.”
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that between February and December of 2008, the Border Patrol stopped 24,524 vehicles, and checked 1,912 people in those vehicles at 53 roadblocks on the Olympic Peninsula. The result: 81 undocumented immigrants and 19 people turned over to other agencies for state crimes.
Ruffling the feathers of local police
Late last year, Jeff Sullivan, U.S. Attorney in Seattle, told the Border Patrol to stop bringing cases of minor marijuana possession to his office that resulted from the roadblocks.
Mike Brasfield, sheriff for Jefferson County, refused to accept the terms for generous funding under Border Patrol's “Operation Stonegarden,” a $60 million program for local units of government in border states that requires them to detain and send illegal immigrants to Border Patrol.
“If the Border Patrol really wants to stop illegal immigration or terrorists or drugs, they have 30 miles of open water to do that,” said Brasfield.
Brasfield called the checkpoints an “an inefficient use of an awful lot of human and financial resources” that have managed to arrest a handful migrant workers who pick the peninsula's native salal bush.
“They're getting $60 million to keep terrorists out of the U.S. and they're using that 60 million to apprehend brush pickers,” he said.
The focus on immigration enforcement exacts a tremendous emotional price for families where some or all members lack legal status, say groups who work with immigrants.
In Schenectady, N.Y., an Ecuadorian who has been in the United States for the last nine years saw his father deported after stopping at a Border Patrol checkpoint last year south of the border on the I-87 after making a delivery in Plattsburgh, N.Y., for a medical supplies company. His father had over-stayed a tourist visa by several years.
“Our lives have changed 360 because it's so tough to be without him, and we have tons of bills,” said the 22-year-old, who lives with his mother and two brothers. Half the family is here legally.
Last year, Brian Brown-Cashdollar, executive director of VIVE, an organization in Buffalo that helps families emigrate to Canada, estimates his staff saw between 20 and 40 families apprehended by either Border Patrol or ICE while they were waiting for their appointments with immigration officials in Canada.
“ICE decided at great taxpayer expense to detain them while they were in the process of voluntarily deporting themselves,” said Brown-Cashdollar.
“If you're applying for paperwork in Canada, it doesn't matter,” said Cotsworth of Border Patrol. “We treat everyone the same.”
Price of CBP gets frustrated when critics blame CBP agents for simply carrying out their job and enforcing the law. “If people don't like what they see, they should be writing to their representative in Congress to change the laws,” said Price.
Border towns adapt to a different way of life
Five winters ago, Raymond Vicknell of Vermont and his wife were snowshoeing south of the Canadian border. “I came over a rise and there's a guy pointing a gun at me, telling me to stop,” said Vicknell. A Border Patrol agent waiting in the woods for a potential drug or person smuggler handcuffed them and demanded identification. “I was scared, I just didn't have a clue,” he said.
Since then, Vicknell has seen plenty more Border Patrol agents in Derby Line, his sleepy town adjacent to Stanstead, Quebec. He lives on Canusa Ave., which runs parallel to the Canadian border. When American residents walk out of their homes on to the streets, they enter Canada. Not that anyone's bat an eyelid over it.
For generations, residents of Derby Line have strolled across the border to attend church in Stanstead. The two towns share a water and sewage system. Audience members at the Opera House can sit in the U.S. watching performers on stage in Canada. As a kid, Vicknell used to bike down the street to visit friends in Canada.
But that unique and carefree way of life has changed. “Every street corner it seems like there's a border patrol,” said Vicknell. “They're driving all over the place.”
Today, when he pulls out of his driveway he has to show documentation at a border inspection station down his street. Cameras and sensors populate the streets. The towns hold meetings to negotiate changes like where border gates will be installed.
“I'm alarmed by it, we're living in a police state,” said Vicknell.
Many observers agree that border enforcement will continue to focus on apprehending non-dangerous immigrants unless the immigration system is reformed.
“Give people a way to (legal) status, and you can focus resources,” said the anonymous border patrol agent in New York.
The agent said he's frustrated by the focus of his work on apprehending non-criminal immigrants who could be on a path to citizenship.
“Am I here to do border enforcement? Not at all. Am I here to do immigration enforcement? Absolutely,” he said. “Are we making the border safer? No.”
Nadja Drost, a recent Hearst intern in Albany, N.Y., and graduate of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia Universitys Graduate School of Journalism, is currently a correspondent for Global Post, the new online international news service, and Time magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.