The Border's Right Here, but the Debate Is Many Miles Away

Edward Bopp stands in the back yard of his house in Tsawwassen, B.C.  The hedge in the picture is on American land.
Edward Bopp stands in the back yard of his house in Tsawwassen, B.C. The hedge in the picture is on American land. (Photos By John Pomfret -- The Washington Post)
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2006

POINT ROBERTS, Wash. -- After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Carol Gilmartin decided she wanted a safer place to live, so she and her partner, Cindy Webster, pulled up stakes from Northern Virginia and moved to what they like to think of as the safest corner of America.

They were among dozens of people -- from the District, New York, Los Angeles -- who relocated to this tiny speck on the Canadian border after the 2001 attacks.

While the country and Congress are embroiled in a debate over border security and illegal immigration, the five-square-mile community of Point Roberts is going through a boom as Americans seeking a safe place to raise their children or to retire move here.

"We live in a home with a view of the sea, where in D.C. I could never have afforded a view of the Potomac," said Gilmartin, who used to work for a software company and who was a frequent visitor to the Pentagon. "I don't miss the Beltway, but I do miss my friends."

Hanging off a Canadian peninsula just below the 49th parallel, which divides the two countries, Point Roberts is accessible by land only via Canada. Residents call it an enormous gated community, with agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection as guards.

"Post-9/11, we had people showing up, knocking on people's doors, saying, 'I'm from New York City. I have a 6-year-old girl. I want to buy your home,' " said Pat Grubb, the publisher and managing editor of the local monthly newspaper, the All Point Bulletin. "It's odd that in other parts of America they worry about the borders, but here people flock to them."

Settled by Icelandic fishermen in the 19th century, Point Roberts became part of the United States in 1846 after the deal that set the 49th parallel as the U.S.-Canada border. During Prohibition, it was a haven for rum smugglers from Canada. That tradition continues: In the past few years, it has been used by marijuana smugglers bringing loads of Canadian hothouse-grown dope called B.C. Bud to the United States. One brazen dealer was even using school children bused each day from Point Roberts through Canada and down into the United States as his mules.

But stroll along Roosevelt Way, a skinny two-lane byway that divides Point Roberts and Canada, and the battle in Washington over hardening U.S. borders seems divorced at least from this reality. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Border Patrol came to the territory and planted several signs along Roosevelt Way on trails connecting the two countries. The signs warned incoming travelers that they must enter the United States at official border crossings. They were mistakenly placed facing into the United States.

Edward Bopp, a retired telephone executive, lives in a sprawling three-bedroom house in Tsawwassen, B.C., but his backyard is in Point Roberts. On a recent summer day, he walked out his back door, by his pool, across Roosevelt Way, and, standing on American soil, he pointed to a spot where he parks his camper van in the driveway of an American friend. "That's how close we are," he said.

His neighbor Douglas Webb, a retired municipal worker, has kept a boat in the Point Roberts marina for 18 years. Indeed, until Sept. 11, Point Roberts seemed almost like a Canadian secret. Directory assistance from the United States couldn't find it. Most of the homeowners were Canadians from nearby Vancouver, B.C., who favored it for its marina, views, cheaper gas and milk, and the fact that you could buy alcohol on a Sunday.

"It's the best spot anywhere near Vancouver to keep a boat," Webb said, sitting on his patio looking out on Roosevelt Way.

Webb has battled local authorities for years over a hedge on his lawn that sits on the U.S. side of the border. "I think all this talk about fences is hilarious," he said. "We are literally sharing this border. You couldn't put a fence up there if you tried. Where are you going to get the cash?"

Some among Point Roberts's population of 1,500 year-round residents bemoan the increasing difficulty of the procedures to pass from the United States to Canada and back. U.S. legislation will soon demand that Canadians and Americans present a passport or some other type of tamper-free document when coming into the United States from Canada. The original deadline was Jan. 1, 2007, but Canada and legislators from several Northern states are lobbying to have the legislation delayed.

Joan Roberts, who holds American and Canadian citizenship, runs Brewster's Restaurant on Point Roberts. To import six loaves of French bread from a Canadian wholesaler, she needs to inform the Food and Drug Administration days in advance to comply with statutes designed to thwart bioterrorism.

U.S. labor law allows her to get unskilled help from Canada, such as servers and dishwashers, but the skilled help need a special visa, and the quotas are invariably filled. Chefs are considered skilled, but cooks are not, so Roberts has "some very, very good cooks."

Roberts used to host a Danish musician from Vancouver at Brewster's on a regular basis. No longer. His passport says he was born in Pakistan. "Even with his blond hair and blue eyes, he got hassled every time he crossed the border," she said. "So he just stopped coming."

Roberts sighed. "At one time," she said. "Canadians and Americans were, just like the Peace Arch says, 'children of a common mother.' We're no longer that. There used to be a special community living along the border, but that community is gone."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company