Homeland Security Comes to Vermont
Sunday, August 24, 2008
DERBY LINE, Vt. -- The changes started coming slowly to this small town where the U.S. border with Canada runs across sleepy streets, through houses and families, and smack down the middle of the shared local library.
First was the white, painted lettering on the pavement on three little side streets -- "Canada" on one side, "U.S.A." on the other. Then came the white pylons denoting which side of the border was which. After that, signboards were erected on some streets, ordering drivers to turn back and use an officially designated entry point.
And along with the signposts came an influx of American Border Patrol agents, cruising through the town in their green-and-white sport-utility vehicles with sirens, chasing down cars and mopeds that ignored the posted warnings.
For longtime residents accustomed to a simpler life that flowed freely across a largely invisible border, the final shock -- and what made most people really take notice -- was a proposal by the border agents last year to erect fences on the small streets to officially barricade the United States from Canada, and neighbor from neighbor.
"They're stirring up a little hate and discontent with that deal," said Claire Currier, who grew up in this border area and works at Brown's Drug Store, which has operated on the same spot since 1884. "It's like putting up a barrier. We've all intermingled for years."
For the Department of Homeland Security, the changes are part of a gradual fortification of America's northern border that began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has accelerated in recent years.
The hardening of the northern frontier is unsettling to many in the small towns along the border. For as long as most of these people can remember, the line between the United States and Canada has been little more than a historic curiosity, rather than the hard and fast demarcation that is America's southern border.
Named the Secure Border Initiative, the project calls for more than tripling the number of agents along the northern border, adding boats and helicopters, and deploying sophisticated new technology including hundreds of millions of dollars in new communications equipment, radiation detectors and three different types of camera-mounted sensors in the uninhabited wooded areas.
"It was freer before, but we live in a different world now," said agent Mark Henry, the operations officer at the Border Patrol's Swanton Sector, headquartered in Swanton, Vt. The sector encompasses about 24,000 square miles, extending from the town of Champlain, in Upstate New York, on the east all the way across to the border with Maine. The sector now has 250 agents, up from 180 three years ago, and the number is scheduled to reach 300 next year.
In 2001, there were 340 agents along the entire border with Canada.
"We're more visible," Henry said. "We've gotten more aircraft, more vehicles, more boats, more ATVs -- pretty much everything, we've got more. And we've got more people to man them."
"9/11 changed everything," said Border Patrol agent Fernando Beltran, the operations chief for Swanton Sector's Newport station, which includes Derby Line. "This may have been Mayberry before, but it's not anymore."