By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Residents of this town of 776 understand the need for enhanced security. They also wistfully remember a time when neighbors easily crossed into another country to visit neighbors. People went to church and to school on either side of the line. Members of the same family lived on either side. Some streets, an old factory, the local library and opera house, and a few houses straddle the line.
"I have one brother -- he's American. He was born on the U.S. side. I was born on the Canadian side," said Arthur Brewer, who is 76. "It was like there was no border -- people back and forth.
"Actually, we're like one people," he added, "like two brothers, one family."
Brewer lives in Canada but walks a few miles almost every day to Brown's Drug Store, saying: "I'm always over here, chatting with the girls. This is the best pharmacy in the world." Brewer said he doesn't have a passport but knows he will have to get one soon, because rule changes next year will require it to cross the border.
"We living in a different world now," Brewer added. "It's too bad."
Lifelong resident Karen Jenne, the Derby Line town clerk and treasurer, said: "I went to church on the other side. I taught Sunday school there. I live on one of those unguarded streets -- I used to cross the border all the time."
Jenne sits on a committee formed when the border agents proposed erecting fences on the three mostly residential streets where the United States and Canada touch. The committee has a dozen members -- five from here in Derby Line, five from Stanstead, the Canadian town on the other side, as well as Beltran, the Border Patrol agent in charge, and his Canadian counterpart.
Townsfolk are concerned about practical issues with fences. The two sides share a water system, a sewer system and snow-removal services. For years, the fire departments of both sides have helped each other without regard to a border, and fences, they fear, might disrupt travel routes for emergency vehicles.
"It hasn't been an easy issue for either side to digest," Jenne said. "But we understand that Border Patrol and Homeland Security have a job to do. . . . The general public doesn't understand what's crossing that border, whether it's drugs or illegals."
The Border Patrol agents are sympathetic to the residents' concerns. "It's trying for the community," Beltran said.
"They understand that there's a change, but to them it's a way of life," Beltran said as he cruised through the town streets in an unmarked SUV. "They never considered themselves in danger. There's a sense of security here."
But for the border agents, Sept. 11 exposed the vulnerability of America's northern frontier and the ease with which anyone -- a terrorist with a portable nuclear device, for example -- could cross into the United States from Canada using one of the multitude of unguarded back roads or forest paths, or, in a border town such as Derby Line, simply by crossing the street.
Beltran said he instructs his agents to use discretion and "common sense." It goes like this: "If a kid [on the Canada side] throws a Frisbee over here, he can come and get it. But if he got the Frisbee and kept walking down to the Arby's to get a soda, we're going to stop you."
"We can't be wrong once," Beltran added. "If we're wrong once, that could be devastating to the whole country."
The new vigilance has led to more arrests of people crossing illegally and interdiction of contraband, mostly drugs. Border agents in this sector said that last year they arrested people from 117 different countries trying to enter the United States illegally. Among the drugs, agents say, they have confiscated large shipments of ecstasy pills being smuggled in, as well as shipments of extra-potent hydroponic marijuana.
The resources here are still a small fraction of what is deployed on the southern border with Mexico. But with the increased Border Patrol presence, the North is starting to look more like what border residents of Texas, California and Arizona have been seeing for years.
As the that presence has increased, so has the risk of violence. Agents in the Swanton sector recall three relatively recent incidents when agents fired their weapons -- most recently when an agent was being beaten by a man he stopped. The agent fell over a guardrail, lost his glasses and fired to chase the suspect away.
"There's a lot of violence on the southern border, so some of that's going to transfer up here," said Norman Lague, the patrol agent in charge of the Champlain station The northern border, some agents say, presents more complex problems. Besides the few border towns such as Derby Line and nearby Beebe Plain, much of the border consists of forests, woods, cornfields, lakes and rivers.
"You can see the challenges we're faced with patrolling," Lague said, as he steered his SUV through the trees down one of the now-barricaded forest roads. "To protect this area, it's enormous. It's huge. It's wide open. You've got to know what you're doing to be an agent up here."
Lague is a 13-year veteran agent, who spent most of his time patrolling the area around Derby Line, where he grew up, before spending five years on the border with Mexico. One difference, he said, is that "there's a delineated line with Mexico. . . . Here, if you were to walk around this town, you would probably walk into Canada and not even know it."
A large part of the job, Lague and the others said, is community outreach and educating border residents that the way of life they have known for generations has profoundly changed.
"We interact with the public," Lague said, "so they understand we're not doing this stuff because of them; we're doing it to protect them.
"The patrol work may vary from our southern border," Lague added, "but our strategy is the same throughout the nation."