Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Washington on the Front Lines
The Radio Room in the Border Patrol Headquarters in Blaine, Washington looks just like a command center in a spy movie. There's a big wall covered with screens showing live video feeds, and workstations lined with monitors blinking with green text and mugshots. But the video screens don't show train stations where Secret Agent Jason Bourne might slip into a crowd and disappear. They show long stretches of country road, the parking lot of a minimart, even farmers' fields.
Bermudez: "You know some of these farms are right along the border and they'll have illegal incursions, they'll have drive–thru's, they'll have people, um smuggle drugs or run right over from Canada into the US into some of those fields."
Blaine is a town of about 4,000 people. It's right on Washington state's border with Canada. Mike Bermudez is a Supervisory Border Patrol Agent and Public Affairs Officer here.
Bermudez: "We're looking for vehicles lingering in, in areas that are commonly used by, by smugglers of humans, drugs, other contraband. We're looking for aberrant behavior, people wearing you know a jacket in the middle of summertime. People, people walking around with luggage."
You see cameras every few hundred yards along the entire border here in Blaine Sector. They are everywhere, right in the middle of roads or fields. But the Border Patrol also uses sensors — in secret locations — to detect illegal movements.
Dispatcher: "The different sounds that we hear in here, for sensors, ground sensors, Alert One, Two or Three."
Alerts come in a hundred thousand times a month — that's once every three minutes.
Dispatcher: "And those correspond in here to colors. Alert One being red, red's kind of the hot color and that basically means that there's something coming southbound into the United States."
Alert Two means there's something headed north into Canada, and Alert Three comes from a sensor that can't tell what direction the person is headed.
Border Patrol sees marijuana and ecstasy coming south into the US, and guns and narcotics heading north. And in 2008 this sector arrested close to a thousand people for being in the United States illegally. Two–thirds were from Mexico. That's because Border Patrol doesn't only arrest people trying to sneak across the border. They also spend time at bus and train stations or ferry terminals, asking people to show proof that they're here legally.
Agents here in Blaine spend much of their time out patrolling the border. It seems a lot like just driving around.
Bermudez: "Well this is it! We're on the line, we're working the line."
Partnow: "So this is what you would do?"
Bermudez: "Yes. You're listening for the radio, you're listening for any radio traffic, you're listening for any sensor activity, and you're patrolling."
This is Mike Bermudex again. He's leaning back behind the wheel of a huge SUV. A spoon is rattling in a coffee cup and he keeps covering it up with wrappers from yesterday's lunch. He has two young sons — a two–year–old and a newborn — at home.
Mike is a first–generation citizen. His parents emigrated from the Philippines. But he thinks it's important to come here legally, and he sees his job as a service to his country.
Bermudez: "I've always been working for the government and you know I'm pretty patriotic and I've been to the, I went to the first Gulf War, I went to Somalia and um you know I think protecting our borders and protecting our country is very important."
Partnow: "I'm standing on the very, very edge of the border with Canada. It's just these rocks."
Unless you're at the official border crossing, you just have to know where the border is.
Jessica: "I'm looking at a road that's five feet away from me which is in Canada. And the temptation to just step across into Canada is almost unbearable."
Bob Boule sees a lot of people giving in to that temptation. He runs a bed and breakfast called the Smuggler's Inn here in Blaine. A long stretch of lawn at the back of his property runs right along the border.
Boule: "'Bout three weeks ago we were sitting here and watched a gentleman go through the yard, with people sitting here at breakfast."
The road along the back of Bob's property is just inside Canada. It's called Zero Avenue.
Boule: "We had a gentlemen here, um, end of July, had a bicycle and uh was from Cuba. And went downstairs, rode his bike down Zero Avenue and came back in, and there were 15 or 16 officers that saw it on film, came and arrested him and deported him for leaving the country illegally and coming back in illegally."
Border Patrol couldn't confirm that specific arrest, but Bob says 150 people have been picked up in his yard, trying to sneak across one way or the other.
Visitors are drawn to Bob's place because of the excitement of the border. The guest rooms are named for famous smugglers like Al Capone and Dirty Dan Harris. Bob hands out night vision goggles to people who want to stay up and watch for smugglers.
Boule: "Nobody has ever stayed here and not seen somebody in the yard if they stayed up. But 98 percent of the time it's Border Patrol that they're seeing that are walking through the yard."
Bob has watched this border change.
Boule: "We used to go across the street and have coffee. We'd go across the street and have dinner. September 11, that doesn't happen any more."
Obama: "We have to put resources and get serious about our borders. With such a long border on the south as well as the north, it's gonna be difficult to have a perfect system along the borders. So what's even more important is that we crack down on employers who are hiring undocumented workers."
But there is a question of just how to go about cracking down on those employers. Obama's first – and seemingly only – workplace immigration raid happened here in Whatcom County in February 2009. The company, Yamato Engine Specialists, was fined $100,000 and twenty–eight people were arrested.
But advocates complain that workplace raids don't address the root causes of illegal immigration. And what's worse, they often affect a family's sole breadwinner, pushing their dependents into the welfare system.
Rene Martinez was picked up in a raid at the Emerald Downs racetrack in 2008.
Martinez: "I was thinking of my children, that I didn't know when I was going to see them again. I didn't know how long I was going to be detained, what day I was getting out, whether they would let me out here. And if they sent me to Mexico, how long would it be till I saw them again?"
Rene came here legally a decade ago, but he let his work permit lapse. He was arrested and held in Tacoma at the Northwest Detention Center for two weeks in 2008.
Martinzez: "The worst part is that they make you feel like you're a criminal. Worse than a criminal sometimes when, really, in my whole life I had never been arrested. Not here, not in Mexico, nowhere. They make you feel like you're worthless."
Martinez has two children, both US citizens, and is now back at his job as a groom at Emerald Downs. His boss put up 15 thousand dollars for a bond to get him out of the detention center. His deportation case is still pending.
Martinez: "It's hard because you're in this limbo; you're just waiting for them to decide. You can't really do anything. Like if I wanted to buy a trailer, or a house, I can't, because I could just be deported."
But Rene has a clean record and a history of being here legally. He thinks the immigration court is giving him a break by letting his case stay open. Immigration proceedings are so backlogged that years could go by before a decision is made.
Martinez: "It's hard, for sure, for people who came here wanting to work, wanting to get ahead, you know? But you always have to keep in mind that, if you can't make it happen you just have to go back to your country. But it doesn't mean you should think about killing yourself, or that everything is all over."
Back at the border, I asked Mike Bermudez what it's like to arrest people trying to come into the US illegally.
Bermudez: "Many of them understand, you know they know what you're doing, they know what your job is and they'll say yeah, officer I know, I understand you're just doing your job. But yeah I feel bad for them. Some of them I feel bad for."
The Obama Administration has already started making changes to immigration policy. And immigration is expected to be a key legislative issues in 2010.
From Blaine, Washington, I'm Jessica Partnow for KUOW.Back