The Big, Bad Border

Iraq might be ground zero for Bushs terror war, but at home, one front line is our 5,000-mile border with Canada. Since 9/11, the U.S. has poured resources and manpower into Mexicanizing one of the worlds most peacefuland porousborders. But critics suggest that strategy wont work, and it could even make things worse.

ONE CHILLY DAY in late February, Costa Rican native Marvin Navarro-Ortiz set out to sneak into the United States. His attempted point of entry was the heavily wooded and treacherously rocky Vedder Mountain, which straddles the U.S.Canadian border among the quiet rural towns just north of Bellingham.

The 35-year-old had been living legally in Toronto for the past six months, working construction and odd jobs, according to his girlfriend, Rachel Gazzillo, an American who lives in Costa Rica. But Gazzillo says he knew he could make more money in the States, where he had lived for 12 years previously, much of it on the East Coast working in a satellite-dish factory. He had sent money home to support his impoverished mother. Having recently gone home to see his family, he looked for a way to get back to the U.S. In Canada, his girlfriend says, Navarro-Ortiz found coyotes who offered him a choice: a smuggling route across the eastern border for $3,000, or one across the western one for $1,500.

We were all very worried that something bad was going to happen, Gazzillo says, speaking by telephone from San Jose, Costa Rica. The borders are being guarded more closely now. We didnt want him to get caught or wind up in prisonor worse.

Their fears were well founded. Navarro-Ortiz and a compatriot apparently got lost on Vedder Mountain. Losing his footing, Navarro-Ortiz dropped some 100 feet to the rocky base of a waterfall. By the time a search-and-rescue team made it up there on Feb. 27, responding to a residents call about persistent yelling on the mountain, Navarro-Ortiz was dead.

The case was unusual only in that it had turned fatal. Every year, thousands of people try to sneak into the U.S. from Canada. The latest prominent case was that of two Pakistani men arrested last month at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, one of whom was on a federal no-fly list for uncertain reasons, after they were smuggled across the border on foot.

The northern border has long been ignored as public attention has been riveted on the southern border, a place of mythological stature in the American psyche, where our expansionist history confronts the economic desperation of our neighbors and the seemingly unstoppable flood of illicit migration. Attention began turning to the Canadian border, however, in the winter of 1999, when authorities caught would-be Islamic terrorist Ahmed Ressam entering at Port Angeles with a trunkload of explosives. At a congressional hearing shortly after, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, warned that terrorists, and also illegal aliens, alien smugglers, and drug smugglers, are increasingly using Canada as a transit country en route to the United States.

In the post9/11 era of homeland security, there have been more congressional hearings on the subject, which has become enough a part of the public consciousness that the TV show West Wing had an episode based on terrorists arriving from Canada. Suddenly, the nation has become acutely aware of its vulnerability from the worlds longest undefended border5,200 miles of mountains, wilderness, waterways, and mostly unfenced land, with law-enforcement officers few and far between. Until recently, only some 300 Border Patrol agents were assigned to the northern border, in contrast to the approximately 9,000 guarding the 2,000 miles on the southern border with Mexico.

The Canadian border was more than undefended it was wide open, says Tom Hardy, head of the Seattle office of the federal Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, part of the newly created Department of Homeland Security.

In response, Congress voted to triple the previously paltry number of agents on the northern border. By the end of the year, the northern border is supposed to be guarded by 375 more agentsthe largest northern deployment in the Border Patrols history and one that will achieve its goal of having 1,000 officers from Blaine to Maine.

Its almost like weve been Mexicanizing the Canadian border, says Deborah Meyers, a prominent policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. That doesnt trouble Meyers, who, like many, believes that weve never funded the Canadian border in the way in which it needs to be funded. But Bellingham immigration attorney Greg Boos detects a note of aggression in the growing rhetoric over the Canadian border that has him wondering whether the government might move toward the kind of paramilitary presence on the northern border that it has on the southern. Such a strategy would not go over well in his parts, he says. We consider ourselves to be friends of Canada up here.

Nor, Boos argues, would it be effective. The Mexican model doesnt work on the Mexican border, so why would it work on the Canadian border? Its a question you hear again and again from a wide array of people concerned, including other immigration attorneys, policy analysts, and law-enforcement officers in both the U.S. and Canada. It arises not only because the U.S. is beefing up its law-enforcement presence along the Canadian border but because it is doing so in a way that accords with a strategy developed on the Mexican border. Called forward deployment, it stresses having agents in highly visible positions right on the border, a policy aimed at deterring illegal entry but one that critics feel neglects important investigative work and enforcement efforts inside the country.

Meanwhile, the new emphasis on the Canadian border has irritated some of our northern neighbors at a time when relations already are strained over differing stands on the war against terrorism. Everyone is awareat least in Canadathat the terrorists who perpetrated the attacks against the World Trade Center didnt enter from Canada, says Elizabeth Bryson, an immigration attorney in Vancouver, B.C. Yet whats the immediate reaction? Blame it on Canada. Some hasten to add that the border problem, contrary to how Americans are accustomed to thinking, works both ways, with illicit activity coming from, as well as into, the U.S.

It Cuts Both Ways

Carey James arrived at the northern border in 1996 to take over the Border Patrols Blaine sector, which runs from the ocean to the Cascades. Like most people in the Border Patrol, who are required to start their career on the Mexican border and to speak Spanish, James had what he calls a southern border mentality. The idea was that coming up here was a vacation. All of a sudden, Im here, and itswhoa, buddy.

Unquestionably, Border Patrol agents on the southern border face a far greater influx of people. For the 10-month period ending July 31, the Border Patrol arrested 8,170 people on the northern border and 748,403 people on the southern border. (Those numbers are somewhat deceiving because the paucity of agents on the northern border leads them to catch what they suspect is a small fraction of the illegal traffic, but they give some perspective.) The northern border, however, is a more complicated place, contends James, who retired from the Border Patrol two years ago and now serves as undersheriff of Whatcom County. Whereas most everyone trying to get in from the south is from Mexico or neighboring countries, James says, up here, its not unusual to get 30 or 40 different ethnic groups in a month. And theyre coming to the U.S. for a variety of reasons.

First, theres the drug trade. B.C. bud is the nickname for the marijuana grown in British Columbiausually indoors using artificial light that yields an extremely potent product. It is considered some of the best marijuana in the world, and Canadian authorities believe it is grown in large part for Americans. Over the past decade, it has become the third- or fourth-biggest industry in British Columbia. Last year, U.S. authorities seized almost 28,000 pounds of marijuana at the border. So valuable is the product, police think, that sometimes it is sold pound for pound for cocainethe primary drug that the United States sends into Canada. Police there seized 350 pounds of coke at the border last year. The players in the cross-border drug trade are a mix, but at least some of the coke dealers come from the Colombian and other Latin American cartels that traverse the U.S., while Vietnamese immigrants and the Hells Angels are active in the Canadian marijuana scene.

Human smuggling across the northern border into the U.S. is also big business. The $1,500 reportedly paid by Navarro-Ortiz seems to have been a bargain. Joe Giullano, an assistant chief of the Border Patrols Blaine sector, says smugglers charge as much as $15,000 per person. Some of those trips, though, originate in the persons home country, with smugglers providing false documents as they usher their clients onto airplanes to Canada, where they then arrange for a land crossing into the U.S.

The choice of Canada as an entry point to the U.S. might be due to visa and immigration policies there. Costa Ricans like Navarro-Ortiz, for instance, dont need visas to visit Canada, nor do Mexicans or Koreans. Korean smuggling operations are some of the biggest currently seen at the border. The Canadian process of requesting asylum also makes it easier for foreigners to live in Canada legally, at least temporarily, than to do so in the U.S. Unlike here, Canada requires no initial screening of asylum applicants to determine whether they have a credible claim of persecution. Applicants are allowed to live in Canada until they have a hearing, a time period that currently runs at about a year. Navarro-Ortiz was living in Canada as an asylum seeker, though his girlfriend knows of no persecution he was suffering. So was Algerian terrorist Ressam.

The Ressam case and our new focus on border security have made Canadas asylum policies the subject of a furious controversy. U.S. officials have expressed concern about what they perceive as a lax policy, and some prominent Canadians have backed them up. Anybody can claim to be persecuted and well let them in, complains James Bissett, a retired director of the Canadian Immigration Service (now called Citizenship and Immigration Canada), speaking by phone from Ottawa. Well allow them to work while they wait for a hearing, and if theyre unable to find work, well give them full welfare benefits and free legal advice. When it comes to people looking for asylum, he says, Canada has become the country of choice, drawing immigrants from, among other places, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Libyacountries that we know produce terrorists.

Dave Harris, a former chief of strategic planning for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and now the president of a consulting firm focusing on security, echoes the sentiment: If you were a terrorist infiltrator, youd be guilty of negligence by not taking advantage of our refugee system.

Canada has been pumping billions of dollars into its own antiterrorism efforts since 9/11 and has pledged to ramp up the screening of refugee applicants as well as visitors. Its worth noting that, notwithstanding its tougher asylum process, the United States probably has at least as big a problem with terrorist infiltration as does Canada. With the possible exception of the United States, there are more international terrorist organizations active in Canada than anywhere in the world, reads a CSIS report. One primary reason CSIS gives for this situation: Canadas proximity to the United States. In other words, many of the terrorists are only in Canada because its a handy point for getting to us. Our problem becomes their problem.

Yet, as in the U.S., some in Canada believe those on the antiterrorist bandwagon are exaggerating the problem to further anti-immigration policies. That doesnt sit well with Canadians who see their country as being the true land of immigrants, and the U.S., for all its welcoming rhetoric, as being hostile to immigrants, particularly those who are Muslim and non-European. Our immigration policy differs from the U.S. in one sense: Its very positive, says Martin Rudner, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa. We want 1 percent of our population to be immigrants every yearthats a strategy. So when the U.S. suggests that Canada tighten up its immigration policieseven if some within Canada are in full agreement its taken as an attack on Canadian values, not to mention its sovereignty. The U.S. government would like to dictate to Canada its immigration policies and standards, says Vancouver immigration attorney Bryson.

All the while, complain some, Americans take no responsibility for the cross-border security problem posed by laws that Canadians consider laxnamely our gun laws. In Canada, everyone who buys a gun has to take a firearms-safety course, apply for a license, and register the guns serial number with the government. The process can take months. Only individuals who belong to gun clubs can buy handguns, and even then, they must be transported in a locked box, in the trunk of a car. Thus has developed the market for illegal guns smuggled in from the U.S., where waiting periods are days, not months, and few other regulations exist.

Its a huge problem, says Wendy Cukier, president of Canadas Coalition for Gun Control and a professor of justice studies at Ryerson University in Toronto. At least half of the handguns recovered in crime in Canada have been smuggled in from the U.S. Just last year, Canadian authorities seized more than 5,000 firearms at the border.

Consequently, while some in Canada bristle at American talk of building up enforcement on the border, others couldnt agree more and, in fact, worry about the discussions of open borders that were until recently in vogue. Strengthening, not relaxing, border controls is needed, proclaims a position paper of the Coalition for Gun Control. The Canadian Police Association has taken the same position, noting both the drug and gun traffic as well as the odd American fugitive who sneaks into Canada hoping to escape punishment.

In Search of Lizard Men

This is the border right here, says Kerri Hunter, supervisor of a Border Patrol unit based in the town of Lynden. Its dusk, and were in his truck, bumping up and down on a dirt road that is, literally, the border. On either side of us are the raspberry fields that are the dominant crop on the modest farms that lie below the mountains. To the untrained eye, there is absolutely no indication that one side is Canada, the other the U.S.no checkpoints, no markers, no fences. As Hunter drives along, noting light patches in the soil that might represent unlawful foot traffic, he discloses the presence of ground sensors at locations he cant name. Nearby, too, are cameras on towering silver poles with which the Border Patrol dotted the landscape after 9/11. Still, the dense rows of raspberry plants, which grow to about 4 feet tall, call out as the perfect cover for someone who wants to crouch their way across the border.

Its hard to imagine an easier route until you drive along a legendary road known as Boundary Avenue, which, true to its name, runs exactly along the border, traveling east from Lynden. Across a grassy median spanning a few feet is an equally legendary Canadian road called 0 Avenue (thats zero). All it takes are two cars on either side and a couple of cell phones, says Hunter. Hey, Im here. I dont see anybody. The person on one side can throw a hockey bag full of drugs to the other or can tell a load of immigrants to scramble across, and the car waiting on the other side can zoom off. Theyre on pavement already, Hunter says. The exchange takes seconds. A few weeks prior to my visit, a smuggler tried to get a dozen Koreans across in a camper shell attached to a pickup truck, which simply swerved off 0 and onto Boundary. The Border Patrol saw this group on camera and arrested them as they were attempting their getaway.

Across the border a couple weeks later, Sgt. Gerry Freill of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) takes me to a swath of 0 Avenue farther west, juxtaposed not with Boundary Avenue but a patch of woods. There he points out a wryly amusing symbol of the ease with which the border is crossedan international marker with an illicit foot path running brazenly right by it. The smugglers use them as landmarks, Freill says of the little cone-shaped markers.

Freill runs a branch of an award- winning Mounties team that works with various law-enforcement agencies on both sides of the border to stop illicit traffic, called the Integrated Border Enforcement Team, or IBET. Working undercover in jeans, out of a blue pickup truck that serves as his office, the gray-haired and deceptively easy-going Freill is eager to talk about the border problem. He drives to another point on 0 Avenue, bordered by woods on the American side and by an open field on the Canadian side that gently slopes down to a golf course. One night last February, the Border Patrol, using an infrared camera, picked up three men headed into Canada at this spot. The Americans alerted the RCMP, whose officers chased after the guys until they found them hiding in a creek near the golf course. Dressed in camouflage gear, they were sporting backpacks containing 41 guns, two machine pistols, and $100,000 U.S.

The ringleader belonged to a Seattle street gang, according to Freill, and also was a known pimp. Hes got a number of working girls he runs up and down the West Coast. In addition to that, hes involved in the gun trade. So he collects handguns and sells them to organized crime groups here. With the profits, Freill believes he used to buy B.C. bud and take it back south, which might explain why he and his cohorts had some extra cash on hand.

Traveling on to a nearby swamp, Freill recalls one of the most memorable busts he ever made, of another American who tried to sneak into Canada with some ready cash. We call him Lizard Man. The Mounties caught him several years back walking through the swamp, water up to his shoulders. He was wearing a wet suit under military fatigues and night-vision goggles on his painted face. He carried thousands of U.S. dollars in a pack on the back of his neck.

Easy as it is to hop across the border at some points, some people figure theyll have even less chance of being caught in more out-of-the-way spots. It just goes to show you the length they will go to, Freill says.

Thats true for people coming our way, too, of course, as demonstrated by Navarro-Ortiz and an arrest made by Freill in December. He caught three Canadians heading up a steep mountain path into the U.S. on snowshoes, their backpacks filled with B.C. bud.

The question is, what to do about it? The Canadian border is a problem but not anywhere near the problem that is the Mexican border. And yet, it takes only one terrorist to capitalize on undeniably easy access to cause us major harm. There have been two known cases of terrorists trying to do so: Ressam, who had planned to bomb Los Angeles International Airport, and lesser-known Abu Mezer. Caught three times trying to sneak in from Canada, Mezer, a Palestinian, somehow was released and made it to New York, where, in 1997, he was arrested before carrying out a planned suicide bombing on the subway. So how far do we go in erecting barriers to a country that is, mostly, a political ally and our No. 1 trading partner?

Officially, authorities stress that there has to be balance. Essentially, a large part of the free worlds economy is in your hands, says Border Patrol Assistant Chief Joe Giullano. Do you really want to shut down the border? The 2001 Smart Border Declaration, negotiated by U.S. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and thenForeign Minister John Manley of Canada, emphasizes cooperation and intelligence sharing between the two countries and developing common databases and even some joint inspection facilities. You have to look at the ability to work with the Canadians as opposed to setting up a line of defense at the 49th Parallel, says Freill of the Mounties.

Yet Freill is one of a number of people who wonder whether the Border Patrol is trying to do just that with its strategy of forward deployment. Its a strategy that began in El Paso, Texas, in the early 90s, then dubbed Operation Hold the Line, and moved west to San Diego. The idea was to deter illegal immigration by creating a human wall of Border Patrol agents, who kept watch in trucks stationed every quarter-mile or so. At first the results seemed dramatic. Apprehensions plummeted in El Paso and elsewhere. But the consensus among leading thinkers on the border is that the strategy eventually proved a failure. Much of the illicit traffic just moved to the southwestern desert, where those who didnt perish in the crossing were likely to encounter less law enforcement. The bottom line is that there is as much illegal immigration as there was 10 years ago and as much [smuggled] drugs as there were 10 years ago, says Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a retired Coast Guard commander.

Forward deployment took hold up north two years ago, when Ronald Henley became chief of the Border Patrols Blaine sector. Its a modified version of the strategy, explains Henley, who wrote the plan for the entire northern border while serving in the Border Patrols California-based Western headquarters. Even with the tripling of agents, he says, the Border Patrol wont have enough manpower to form a line across 5,200 miles. The northern strategy is more intelligence-driven, he says.

But deterrence through the high visibility of agents is still the cornerstone of the strategy. And that means agents have in large part stopped doing other work, such as raids on logging camps and farms and jail checks to determine whether suspects are illegal immigrants. (Homeland Securitys Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is now responsible for interior enforcement, but its unclear how much of the Border Patrols former work it will pick up.) Despite the talk of cross-border cooperation, the Blaine sector also has scaled down its work with the Canadian IBET team, no longer assigning any dedicated agents to the effort.

Its horribly boring, Daryl Schermerhorn, a Lynden agent and vice president of the national Border Patrol union, says of the new mandate. How many circles can you drive? Were tripping over each other at the border when we could be doing all this other stuff.

Not all critics of the policy would like to see more draconian raids on immigrant workplaces; some, in fact, would like to see hardworking illegal immigrants legalized so that border authorities can focus on people who mean to do us harm. But many agree that agents dont have time for critical intelligence gathering if theyve got their butt parked in a truck at the border, as Kathleen Walker, a longtime immigration attorney in El Paso, puts it. Instead, she says, agents should try to track down smuggling rings and put them out of business.

Former Blaine Border Patrol chief James and his retired deputy, Eugene Davis, sitting in Davis Bellingham house, further argue that vital information comes from catching bad guys through strategic operations rather than merely trying to deter them. That gives authorities a chance to interrogate transgressors and use subsequent information to trace problems back to the source. If the guy is a terrorist, youre much better off catching him and finding out who he is and what he is, Davis says. Especially, he and James add, because terrorists and other criminals will inevitably find a way across a vast border that is impossible to seal off. If youre a terrorist intent on coming to this country, [forward deployment] will just push you to another area where you can do harm, James says, citing the example of what happened on the Mexican border.

Nowhere in the Border Patrol handbook does it say to allow people into the country so you can talk to them, counters Chief Henley. You dont allow someone into the country with a nuclear weapon so you can chat.

Still, deterrence has been shown to be unachievable on the Mexican border and has even less chance of being effective on the longer and more open Canadian border. So how reassuring is the Border Patrols new visibility? It might have a role, but it might also be creating the illusion of controlwhat immigration attorney Walker, among others, calls an optical solution. Concludes Meyers of the Migration Policy Institute: A lot of the most important measures are ones that are not visible.

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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