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Border police presence is changing communities

North of Bellingham, the presence of surveillance technology and ever-more law enforcement has begun to change the feel of life in what otherwise seems to be a traditional bit of Americana.

All-American town? Lynden's post office is on the National Register of Historic Places.

All-American town? Lynden's post office is on the National Register of Historic Places. Publichall/Wikimedia Commons

The Peace Arch on the Canadian border sends one kind of message. But today we are emphasizing other kinds of images on our borders.

The Peace Arch on the Canadian border sends one kind of message. But today we are emphasizing other kinds of images on our borders. Sue Frause/via Crosscut Flickr group

The small town of Lynden, Washington, 10 miles northeast of Bellingham and several miles south of the Canadian border, looks like "a town that time forgot." Farms dot the landscape around town. Stores are still closed on Sunday. High school sports are a big thing and so is church, especially the various Reformed Churches, Dutch Reformed, Christian Reformed, and Reformed Church in America.

But Lynden and other towns like it in Whatcom County are something else, something that may not be as obvious to the casual observer. They are the front lines of the current Border Wars. Just this week, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano took politicians to task for fanning the flames of the border wars, with scary stories of crime waves and invading hordes. The facts are otherwise. The number of border crossings, legal and illegal, is way down. Crime along the border is, too.

Referencing politicians frequent claims that "the border is overrun with violence and is out of control," Napolitano said: "This statement, often made to score political points, is just plain wrong.”

But it turns out there is a profit to be made in sounding the alarm by relentlessly repeating, "the borders are out of control.” There’s political profit. It’s an attention- and vote-grabber.

And there’s financial profit. It puts money in state coffers. Last year Texas got $600 million from DHS, which Texas Gov. Rick Perry described as a "good start."

Corporations also profit from the Border Wars, one of larger ones being Boeing. In January, Napolitano pulled the plug on a Boeing project that has cost U.S. taxpayers a quick $1 billion since 2006 with nothing to show for it. The SBI.net ("Secure Border Initiative") was touted as creating a "virtual" electronic fence along the 1,800 miles of border with Mexico. After five years and a billion dollars, 53 miles of the border had a largely ineffective SBI. Congressman Bennie Thompson, ranking Democratic member of the House Homeland Security Committee, described SBI.net as, "a grave and expensive disappointment."

A drive in the country around Lynden is a different experience than a country drive in my grandparents' day. You're apt to run into multiple Border Patrol agents in SUVs on the prowl amid the berry patches and manure piles. If you look up, you'll notice cameras perched atop phone poles — DHS surveillance cameras. Many don't work. Their installation has "political boondoggle" written all over it. Though you probably won't see it, there could be a Predator Drone in the sky above, flying at an altitude of 20,000 to 50,000 feet. Seven Predators currently patrol the U.S. borders, each requiring an initial $11.5 million investment. You may also spot, or at nighttime hear, one of the Border Patrol's black helicopters, which often hover so low above local farms that farmers complain of earthquake-like vibrations.

Customs and Border Protection is one arm of the Department of Homeland Security, which is now the largest police or law-enforcement agency in the U.S. DHS is the third largest department of the federal government, exceeded only by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

There’s a new Border Patrol facility in Lynden, another new one in nearby Sumas, and an enlarged one in Blaine. Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce President Ken Oplinger says that the number of CBP personnel at the Blaine site has "more than doubled since 9/11." Recently, DHS purchased the former plant of Louws Truss, a longtime maker of wooden trusses, in Ferndale. With that $4.5 million acquisition, DHS has another 40,000 square foot complex for yet another new installation in Whatcom County.

"No one knows exactly how many employees DHS has in Whatcom County because they won’t tell us," said Bellingham attorney, Greg Boos. "In 2009 the Whatcom County Sheriff put the number at 900, but it"s grown a lot since then." Boos, an immigration attorney and longtime Bellingham resident, also notes that the effect of the DHS employees on life in the county is different than it was for a long time. "It used to be a relatively small number and Border Patrol people lived here and were involved in the community," Boos said. "They were invested. But now DHS is rotating personnel through here on short-term assignments, maybe two-year stays. They aren't involved in the community. They won't vote, for example, on school bond elections."


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Feb 7, 8:05 a.m. Inappropriate

Great piece. The truth of the matter is that no terrorist has ever come from Canada and blown something up. All of the 19 hijackers came into the US straight from the middle east.

Canada isn't Mexico, and there's no reason to fear it. Canadians don't just let anyone into their country, and Canadians themselves pose zero threat to the USA.

The obvious solution is not to try to patrol 4000 miles of border, but to work together and stop terrorists from coming into any North American airport. If we do that, then we can actually treat the Canadian border like any other state border and allow travelers to come across without any restrictions.

It really wasn't so long ago that this was the case. Up until the 1920s anyone could go north or south without having to go through any checkpoint. We're the same nation, just divided by a line in the middle. Oregon Country didn't stop at the 49th, we drew it and separated peoples. Time to unite and end the silly border www.UnitedNorthAmerica.org

MarkJ

Posted Mon, Feb 7, 2:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Ya know, I'm a bit of a lefty generally. I will say that a strong border with a fair and effective immagration policy is preferable to this nonsense we have where we more or less sucker desperate people across our borders to do our dirty work - until we catch them and deport them is absurd and immoral. So I'm not a right winger on this. That said - Ahmed Rassam was on his way to blow up LAX when he was stopped in Port Townsend. Markj seems a bit naive to me.

Posted Mon, Feb 7, 2:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Ya know, I'm a bit of a lefty generally. I will say that a strong border with a fair and effective immagration policy is preferable to this nonsense we have where we more or less sucker desperate people across our borders to do our dirty work - until we catch them and deport them is absurd and immoral. So I'm not a right winger on this. That said - Ahmed Rassam was on his way to blow up LAX when he was stopped in Port Townsend. Markj seems a bit naive to me.

Posted Mon, Feb 7, 7:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Martin -- That was Port ANGELES, not Port Townsend, where Rassam (aka "the Y2K bomber") was stopped in 1999, 12 years ago. And he was stopped by a tiny staff of low-key, experienced customs agents in Victoria, BC, and Port Angeles. The Canadian agent at the Victoria ferry terminal just had a funny feeling about Rassam, and gave her counterpart in PA a call.

Unfortunately, that incident made PA a Mecca for the Border Patrol when they came into their giant "War on Terror" budget windfalls. A few years ago, our small cadre of smart, subtle border controllers was suddenly quadrupled by a giant influx of crude BP cowboys -- undertrained and under-utilized, and apparently hyped into a frenzy by the Rassam story and watching too much "24". They were a field station of the Bellingham office, and determined to make their mark here.

Big Brother had hit sleepy Port Angeles. They cheerfully expounded on their plans to set up a giant office and detention center, and also explained that their mission statement called on the BP to "fight crime in border towns" -- meaning they believed they were entitled to do whatever law-enforcement they chose in any area within 100 miles of any border or coastline. That turns out to represent something like 90% of the US population.

Don't believe the official Bellingham story about deciding not to do checkpoints because their checkpoint expert left -- the checkpoint project started here on the Olympic Peninsula, and didn't spread because normally low-key Peninsula residents were so outraged by the BP's ham-handed Gestapo-like approach that they actually took to the streets to protest it. That, and a lot of phone calls and letters, inspired our Congressman, the very senior and unexcitable Norm Dicks, to meet with the BP and tell them to chill. The cowboys weren't just looking for illegal aliens -- the jewel in their checkpoint crown was the arrest of a disabled veteran who had a tiny amount of medical marijuana -- and his prescription for it -- with him.

The BP is no longer stopping every vehicle entering or leaving the Peninsula, but the checkpoints still continue, reduced to routine boarding of buses headed to & from Seattle at a pullover on 101 (our only access road) south of Port Townsend. And the number of agents here continues to explode, though the number is classified here too. The shiny, brand-new, green-and-white BP SUVs infest our area like slugs in a garden, and BP has just inked a deal to buy an enormous building here for their detention center and offices. Oddly enough, they are not willing to share it with our local Customs office -- Customs is now looking for expanded space of their own. It's a little eerie to read our local paper's crime reports -- routine arrests here now are frequently accomplished by a team of local cops plus a BP agent. We've got our full complement of surveillance cameras, too. And when SR 112 was resurfaced a few years back, it was marked every tenth of a mile by a large ID number, clearly designed to be read from above.

You might wonder where all the money for this is coming from. I did a quick research job when all this started going crazy -- Bush was still President then -- and learned that the BP was included in Bush's endless series of "emergency" supplemental appropriations -- they weren't just for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were for everything considered to be "War on Terror". That included the BP, which in 2006 had gotten an extra $12 b-b-billion above their normal budget to, um, fight Terror. Around here, that turned out to be the disabled vet with his teaspoonful of medical marijuana, heading to Seattle for a doctor's appointment. Makes ya proud to be an American, don't it?

westomoon

Posted Tue, Feb 8, 9:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks westomoon-

Most people don't take an interest in the situation on the Olympic Peninsula today.

The US Border Patrol is expanding to a 50 agent station at Port Angeles while handing out federal grant money to local law enforcement &- at the very same time- dictating a news blackout on local arrests.

Local "news" papers react with total compliance.

In nearby Whatcom County- no such news blackout exists.

Complete Documentation/News Links here:

http://tinyurl.com/FourthEstate

yeomalt

Posted Tue, Feb 8, 9:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Good article.
yeomalt, I couldn't get that link to work but it might have just been busy.

kieth

Posted Tue, Feb 8, 12:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Referencing politicians frequent claims that "the border is overrun with violence and is out of control," Napolitano said: "This statement, often made to score political points, is just plain wrong.”

Is anyone saying this about the border with Canada? The real reason that people fear border violence is because Mexico is fast becoming a failed state. The fact that the Homeland (what a wretched, un-American word) Security Department is using the opportunity of unrest in Mexico to increase their police presence along the border with Canada is just the inevitable propensity of governments to exercise power in any place and any manner that they can. The reality is that the Mexican border is too lax and the Canadian border is too strict. This sounds to me like political correctness run amok. We'll treat the Canadians like a pestilence because Mexico is threatening our national security, all in the name of "fairness". If our nation devolves into lawlessness and anarchy, it won't be because Bob and Doug McKenzie are driving to Blaine to save a few bucks on a trunkload of beer.

It's a sobering fact that it's an order of magnitude easier to drive from Berlin to Paris than it is to do so from Bellingham to Vancouver. Those European capitals have been at war with each other, off and on, since Charlemagne's sons divided up the Holy Roman Empire. With the exception of the Pig War, there have been no hostilities between Washington and British Columbia. There is something seriously wrong with the way this nation treats its borders. Believe it or not, we have something to learn from Europe (a continent of homelands) here.

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Feb 9, 10:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Good article. It's a sad subject because just when we should be drawing closer to Canada, and even more so Washington to BC, in the face of rapid globalization, the border issue hits us in the face.

The truth of the matter is that we should have been taking care of some of this all along.

After 9/11 President Bush implored the Candaians to "harmonize" their immigration policies with ours, which is roughly translated as "do it our way."

He was right to ask that of the Canadians. Partly because of domestic Canadian politics, the Canadian federal government has a rather generous attitude toward political refugees from French-speaking countries who then settle in Montreal.

That was the history of the "Millenium Bomber." He got political refugee status in Canada under terms the US would never have allowed. So into Canada went a French-speaking, Muslim, North African who joined the ranks of those from crappy countires who think all the ills in the world are the fault of the US.

But Canada refused to harmonize their rules with our stricter ones, so the US had no choice but to do what had to be done. It's not like the situation in Canada was merely a theoretical threat. We already caught one!

I know people are upset at people who made it all the way from Mexico being picked up in the San Juans working contruction. Yeah, these guys really are hard-working, and, on the whole, contribute more than they receive.

But if CBP has expanded on the northern border to catch terrorists and ends up snagging more landscape laborers, so be it. Neither one of them has any lawful business coming here to do what they want to do.

Goforride

Posted Wed, Feb 9, 11:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Sorry - Port Townsend would have been an odd place to cross the border. My point is that there are real reasons to have borders. Harrassment, of course, isn't one of them. But looking for people up to no good is. It just struck me as odd to dismiss the idea that someone would ever enter the US from Canada with the goal of terrorism when there was a very public case of that not too long ago.

Posted Wed, Feb 9, 2:59 p.m. Inappropriate

The "Millennium Bomber" was caught by Customs Service agents with years of experience looking for suspicious people. In essence, they use profiling (gasp!) as a tool to weed out people who are likely lawbreakers. The ham-fisted shock troops of the "Homeland" Security Department had nothing to do with that intervention, and one is left to wonder if they are helping or hurting the ability of the real professionals to do their jobs.

dbreneman

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