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.

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

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.

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 ("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 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."

While all the new DHS personnel is good, in some ways, for the economy, Chamber President Oplinger confirms there isn’t the kind of investment in the community there once was now that federal employees are often here for a couple years or less.

Oplinger adds that many of the DHS/CBP personnel "bring with them what we call a ‘south border attitude.' " As an example, he cites an experience reported by many Canadians. The CBP agent at the crossing asks, "Why are you coming to the U.S.?" Answer, "To do some shopping." Agent, “Why don’t you shop in your own country?” In recent years more Canadians do. "There used to be three and four times the number of people crossing from Canada to shop in the U.S. than today," said Oplinger.

For years there was a direct correlation between the strength of the Canadian dollar and Canadians coming over to the U.S., Bellingham in particular, to shop and do business. A strong Canadian dollar meant lots of business and low unemployment in Bellingham. Now, even with the strength of the Canadian dollar, cross-border shopping has dropped way off.

Oplinger regrets what the Canadian government has called, accurately in his view, "a thickening of the border." He says that Whatcom County residents long for "a more practical approach that views Canada as a friend and Canadians as partners."

But traffic at American borders is down everywhere. The number of people crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. is its lowest since the early 1970s. Even the number of persons crossing illegally is at its lowest since that time. While some of this may be attributable to the economic slowdown, it is noteworthy there was no comparable decline in border crossings during our previous severe recession, from 1981 to 1983.

Still, the drumbeat of borders-out-of-control rhetoric continues. And the buildup of expensive manpower and technology continues.

Boos, the immigration attorney, doesn't think the answer lies in spending more money or in turning the borders into a police state. He says the most effective measures have been Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBET), which is an approach worked out between Canadians and their American counterparts. Working together, they develop the intelligence that is responsible for most of the large drug and human trafficking busts. "But," says Boos, "you'll never hear about IBET and how effective it is because there"s no payoff for anyone in Washington, D. C. It doesn't build them an empire."

Another side effect of the expanded DHS/CBP presence in Whatcom County is that in parts of the county after hours 911 calls no longer go to the police. They are answered by Customs and Border Protection. Chances of an undocumented immigrant calling 911 when he or she sees or experiences a crime drop a lot when CBP is answering the phone.

A further, little-known power of CBP is the ability to establish checkpoints anywhere within 100 miles of the border, pulling drivers over and checking identification. Such checkpoints have been used by CBP in the northeastern parts of the U.S. They were on the books for use in Whatcom County two years ago, but were put on hold when an officer in charge of the program was arrested on a rape charge.

"Talking about DHS and CBP up here (in Whatcom County), in a critical fashion, is a hard thing for people to do," remarked Boos. "Since 2001 and 9/11, how do you talk about this stuff without sounding like a communist or a terrorist or something?” DHS in Whatcom County threatens to become the proverbial elephant in the room. The Whatcom Country Library System has tried to help their community talk about the elephant. Boos spoke in Lynden under the auspices of "Whatcom Reads," a program that invites the community to all read one book together and builds other discussions around the book’s themes. This year’s book is Border Songs, an hilarious yet poignant novel set in Lynden, by Olympia author Jim Lynch.

To the casual visitor, Lynden looks like everyone"s picture of all-American town, with a main street of small stores and restaurants, ample town parks and playfields, well-built schools, and a handsome library. And maybe it is. It's just that now "all-American" seems to include lots of cameras, surveillance technology, and ever-increasing numbers of law-enforcement personnel.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.