(Host) This week, in a series of reports on Vermont Edition we’re looking at how our lives have changed in the 10 years since September 11th, 2001.
People who live along our border with Canada are among those whose daily lives have been affected by increased security in the post 9/11 era.
Routine trips between countries became more difficult and the beefed up security has ruffled feathers among those in border communities.
In the first story in our series Life After 9/11, VPR’s Charlotte Albright looks at how visiting our ‘neighbors to the north’ has changed in the past decade.
(Swanton control room)
(Albright) In a windowless control room at the US Customs and Border Patrol office in Swanton, three staffers stare at a half dozen video screens. The remote cameras show mostly pastoral scenes. Cows graze. Trees sway.
It’s a fairly uneventful day in a sector that covers 24,000 square miles in Vermont, New York, and New Hampshire. That includes about 300 miles of the international boundary.
(Pfeifer) "Anybody or anything that crosses the border in between the official ports of entry is suspect."
(Albright) John Pfeifer is Chief Patrol Agent for the Swanton sector. Aided by new cameras, terrestrial and aquatic vehicles, night vision goggles, and sensors, he and his patrollers are on constant alert.
(Pfeifer) "Actually anybody, whether you’re on a bike, you’re walking, on an ATV, a snow machine, a boat, an aircraft, anything that crosses the border that’s not going through the port of entry, we have an interest in identifying who and what that is and why they’re coming in not at an official port of entry."
(Albright) Before 9/11, the Department of Customs and Border Patrol was mostly concerned with immigration along the southwestern border of the U.S.
After the attacks, CBP and 22 other agencies were brought together under the now sprawling Department of Homeland Security.
While the vast majority of agents still target criminals and illegal entries through Mexico, the northern border is now also operating under what Pfeifer calls an "all threats" policy-with would-be terrorists at the top of the wanted list followed by criminals and illegal immigrants.
(Pfeifer) "And last year we arrested approximately one thousand four hundred individuals that were subject to removal from the United States."
(Albright) The Border Patrol will not say if any of those illegal immigrants had terrorist ties. Pfeifer will say that the Swanton sector typically seizes about 5,000 pounds of marijuana, and about two million dollars in US currency every year.
That makes it one of the most active regions along the entire US-Canadian border. Pfeifer says that’s partly because it’s so remote and hard to patrol, even though cooperation with Canada has greatly improved. There are now almost 300 agents in the Swanton sector – up from about 75 ten years ago. Many are more heavily armed than they used to be. And there’s a building boom going on.
(Kuhn) Paul Kuhn, I’m the Patrol Agent in charge of the Beecher Falls Border Station; I started in 1997 in Brownsfield, California.
(Albright) Like many of his colleagues, Kuhn is a recent transplant. Tucked into Vermont’s northeast corner, Beechers Falls is so remote that there isn’t even any cell service. But Kuhn is looking forward to working in a brand new facility now under construction. Right now, he says, space is so tight that he had to move his office into what used to be a little-used female holding cell.
(Kuhn) That station was built for four individuals. So you can figure that if we’re in excess of 20 people right now, we’re a little overcrowded.
(Albright) New border patrol facilities have also been built, renovated, or are planned for Swanton, Newport and Richford, Vermont, and Messina and Burke, New York. But not every new building project has been welcomed.
Plans to expand the Morse’s Line border station stirred protest after the Department of Homeland Security threatened to take some farmland by eminent domain.
Brian Rainville, the farmer’s son, testified before Congress that there was a clash of cultures with Homeland Security.
(Rainville) "My family said clearly, ‘This is vital cropland.’ Their environmental assessment said, ‘This is a vacant lot.’"
(Albright) Last year, the feds decided to close the Morse’s Line Station, but that decision, too, has drawn flak.
Another controversy is still simmering in Derby Line, where a pharmacist named Roland "Buzzy" Roy drew the ire of border patrol agents and a five hundred dollar fine when he repeatedly crossed the boundary on foot without passing through a checkpoint. Using that ungated back road is a time-honored tradition in this small border town.
In his busy pharmacy, where customers often cheer him on in his dispute with border authorities, Roy admits that border security probably needed to be beefed up, post 9/11. But he says it’s been overdone.
(Roy) Certainly it’s good, but at what cost is it? It’s changed our lives, so much so that the terrorists have won, they are destroying our former way of life. We have lost our liberties. It’s at too great a cost.
(Albright) Roy says almost never goes to Canada any more, because he refuses to get a passport just for daily shopping and visiting across the border.
That’s too bad, and all too common, says one border security expert.
(Alden) "All of these border measures have disrupted a way of life that was long established."
(Albright) Ted Alden is a senior research fellow at the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations, where he speaks and writes often about the build-up in border security since 9/11.
He applauds the US government for requiring better identification from travelers, and for improving intelligence about them in advance, for example when they board aircraft. But he also thinks the huge investment in patrolling the Canadian border between checkpoints is not necessarily the wisest use of scarce resources.
He would rather shift those dollars to the ports of entry, where he says most terrorists would and do try to cross. He thinks it should be easier to cross legally.
(Alden) "Nobody is going to travel back and forth across the border any more showing a library card. You’re going to have to be able to prove you are who you are. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be possible for people to travel freely and easily and securely across that border, and I think that’s what people in Vermont and across the United States ought to be demanding of their lawmakers."
(Albright) As for demanding that the border be 100 percent secure, Alden says that’s an impossible goal.
He points to a recent Government Accounting Office report finding that the Department of Customs and Border Protection had reported that, quote, "32 of the nearly 4,000 northern border miles in fiscal year 2010 had reached an acceptable level of security."
Alden says the way to improve that record is not keep throwing money and manpower at the problem, but to continue promoting cooperation between enforcement and intelligence agencies on both sides of the northern boundary-and beyond it.
For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright.