Border Patrol "spot checks" on ferries provoke outrage in San Juan Islands
The people of the San Juan Islands tend to be independent sorts, espousing a do-it-yourself, leave-me-be ethos as natural and ever-present...
Seattle Times staff reporter
FRIDAY HARBOR, San Juan County — The people of the San Juan Islands tend to be independent sorts, espousing a do-it-yourself, leave-me-be ethos as natural and ever-present as the tide.
But for many of the 17,000 people of this island county, the normal rhythms of small-town life have hit a dissonant chord lately.
A couple of months ago, the U.S. Border Patrol began occasional "spot checks" of every vehicle and passenger arriving in Anacortes off state ferries, the lifeline between these islands and the mainland.
For some here, it seems like a good idea or, at worst, a minor inconvenience. But for a vocal and active faction, the federal agents' aggressive questioning and demands for identification have spurred outrage.
In the islands' coffee shops and the editorial pages of the local paper, then in a crowded, heated meeting last month, a number of people have complained that islanders are being unfairly treated and questioned, even though they haven't left the country and normally wouldn't be subject to such scrutiny.
Terms like "police state" are hurled around, as they say the searches are illegal, unconstitutional — and just a ruse to catch illegal immigrants and petty drug users.
The Border Patrol responds that the stops are annoying but necessary, the cost of keeping the country safe. It maintains that a terrorist could easily use the same maze of waterways and islands here that for generations has harbored smugglers, rumrunners and drug dealers.
But in this comparatively affluent county, where there isn't a single stoplight, angry islanders are unsatisfied. They've complained to their congressional delegates and recently asked the American Civil Liberties Union to monitor the situation and provide legal advice.
And they have rallied around a family who immigrated illegally from Mexico years ago and were recently caught up in the dragnet. They raised bail for them and paid their rent while they were detained.
The Border Patrol's actions are "hurting good people, even if they are undocumented," said the Rev. Raymond Heffernan, priest at Friday Harbor's St. Francis Catholic Church.
Island residents "are concerned about the invasion to their own privacy and the damage it's doing to good people — people who are contributing to the community," said the 77-year-old priest.
With their location 20 or so miles from Canada, the San Juan Islands have enticed smugglers for more than a century. Complex channels and isolated coves concealed the import of Chinese laborers and opium in the 1880s, moonshine during Prohibition, and more recently, potent marijuana known as "B.C. bud."
And the Border Patrol says terrorists could be next.
San Juan Islanders are used to customs inspections in Anacortes if they take the ferry that comes from Sidney, B.C. Before now, though, they were never subjected to checks on domestic ferry runs.
That changed in February, when federal agents started corralling everyone off domestic ferries into a fenced-off area in Anacortes and questioning them about their citizenship. It now happens once, maybe twice a week; no one has any way to know if they will be stopped.
When islanders talk about taking a ferry to the mainland, the joke around town these days is, "I'm going back to America," said David Jones, the mayor of Friday Harbor.
"There's a great surge of indignation underneath the surface here," he said.
So much so that local attorney Carolyn de Roos recently asked three Seattle lawyers to come speak at two meetings about residents' rights and legal options.
Their advice: Don't answer any questions.
Because island residents who board domestic ferries don't cross an international border, they "have a right not to reveal anything about their legal status," said Matt Adams, an attorney with the Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and a member of the ACLU.
"Once they're inside the country, Immigration doesn't have the right to detain someone without reasonable suspicion," Adams said. And ethnic background, skin color or language don't meet that threshold.
But if someone admits to being in the country illegally, Border Patrol can arrest the person.
"It's a vulnerability"
Joe Giuliano, the Border Patrol's deputy chief patrol agent for the Blaine border sector, says he understands that the stops are a hassle for law-abiding citizens.
But he stresses that the threat of terrorism is no joke.
It's conceivable that someone could get to the islands by plane or boat, or board an international ferry in Sidney, B.C., and get off in Friday Harbor instead of Anacortes. Once in an island community, a person with nefarious intentions could mix with the locals and then board a domestic ferry in order to sneak into the country, Giuliano said.
"It's a vulnerability and we're worried that it could be exploited," he said.
"You have to catch it all to make sure you're not dealing with a terrorist issue. And, if an immigration issue walks up to you, you're pretty much compelled to act on it."
As for residents who refuse to cooperate or answer questions, Giuliano said, agents will still run their license-plate numbers and search databases, detaining them until it can be determined whether they are here legally. But if an agent doesn't have enough information to make that determination, or doesn't have probable cause to arrest someone, "the thing is let go," he said.
Between late February and last week, 43 people — 38 of them from Mexico — have been arrested in the ferry stops, Giuliano said. An additional 141 people from a total of 33 countries were interviewed by agents before they were let go.
"Oh, no. They've got us"
Late last year, rumors began circulating among the islands' Hispanics that the Border Patrol was snaring illegal immigrants who rode the ferries to Anacortes.
So for three months, the Sanabria family — Antonio, Amelia and their daughters Guadalupe, 18, and Carmen, 15 — never left Friday Harbor.
When they didn't hear of any arrests, they decided to chance it in February so Guadalupe could take her driver's-license test on the mainland.
A Border Patrol agent approached their pickup truck as they got off the ferry in Anacortes. Antonio Sanabria whispered to his family in Spanish: "Oh, no. They've got us."
It never occurred to them that they could refuse to answer the agents' questions, said Guadalupe Sanabria, who was 2 when her parents illegally came to the U.S. from Michoacan, Mexico.
The family was sent to a federal detention facility in Pennsylvania. Even before the Sanabrias were escorted onto a plane, Guadalupe was phoning friends back in Friday Harbor.
As it will in small towns, news spread fast. Members of the community managed to raise enough money to get the family out on a $30,000 bond, and they were back in Friday Harbor by the end of March — their plane tickets also courtesy of folks back home.
Even so, the Sanabrias know they will probably lose their bid to stay in the United States.
"I'm really thankful our community helped us because if not for them, we wouldn't be back," Guadalupe said. "It's in God's hands. We just hope someday there's a way for us to be legal."
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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