U.S.-Canada Border Community's Culture Changes As Security Tightens

Nov 21, 2019
Originally published on November 22, 2019 12:33 pm

Scott Wheeler was born and raised in what's known as the Northeast Kingdom, the rugged and beautiful countryside where Vermont abuts Canada. Even so, he didn't realize he was supposed to check in with Canadian immigration authorities when driving across the border recently.

Two polite, officious Mounties tell him to make a U-turn and follow them back to the port of entry where he's questioned about his intentions inside Quebec. He explains his mistake, and eventually, the Mounties return his identification and he's free to go.

"That's pretty much life on the border; it's changing," Wheeler says, resignedly.

Road signs indicate the many ways to get to Canada from the center of Derby Line, Vt. The number of illegal crossers is on the rise.
Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for NPR

While the southern border gets all the attention with President Trump's massive wall and the backlog of desperate asylum-seekers stuck in Mexico, things are tense on the northern border with Canada, as well. The number of illegal crossers is on the rise. And residents complain that heightened security has changed the character of the once-neighborly frontier.

"It's even confusing for a local to understand," says Wheeler, a former state representative and history buff who publishes the Northland Journal. "Back when I was growing up, you could come across the border with a wave to the border agents."

"It's a barrier, and we feel it"

In the past two fiscal years, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has logged a 400% jump in apprehensions of people crossing illegally from Canada. That's the biggest increase anywhere along the 5,525-mile northern border.

Neighbors Janice Beadle (left) and Marie Vallieres stand on their respective sides of the white stripe that marks the international border on Canusa Avenue, with the U.S. on the left and Canada on the right.
Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for NPR

Border authorities made it harder to cross freely after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but things have gotten even stricter since President Trump took office.

Consider Canusa Avenue — the name is a hybrid of Canada and USA. The international boundary runs for a third of a mile along this street. This is where Wheeler inadvertently turned into Canada.

There are 14 houses, with Americans living on the south side of the street and Canadians on the north. Two residents recently met on their respective sides of the white boundary line.

"We cannot leave our street on our own free will," says Janice Beadle, who describes herself as a retired snack bar owner, dairy worker and maple syrup-maker.

Richard Ross (right), agent in charge of the U.S. Border Patrol's Newport Station, greets a Canadian border agent at the Beebe, Quebec, and Beebe Plain, Vt., crossing.
Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for NPR

Beadle owns a century-old yellow house on the U.S. side, which she is trying to sell. Because of the Customs and Border Protection checkpoint at the end of her street, she has to identify herself to a uniformed agent every time she goes to the drugstore or gets groceries.

"You get asked a lot of questions," she says, exasperated. "And sometimes they want proof you live here, even if they know you."

Then last year, it got worse. A big steel barrier was installed at the end of Canusa Avenue to control vehicle access.

Charles Harvey (center) and Tonya Wyche stopped to look at a building sitting on the U.S.-Canada border, on their way back from a vacation in Montreal.
Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for NPR

"To me, I feel it's very intimidating just to have the barrier there," Beadle says. "It's like a wall."

Marie Vallieres, a retired nurse, is her neighbor in Canada.

"I used to be able to cross over and see my friend that used to own that house, and just go have a glass of wine with her and come back," Vallieres says. "And now, like Janice says, it's a barrier and we feel it."

These days, Vallieres likely wouldn't even be able to take a bag of fresh-baked cookies to her neighbor without drawing the attention of authorities.

A new way of life

Fernando Beltrán, the retired Border Patrol agent who has been in charge at the nearby Newport, Vt., station, points out this is a smuggling route used to move potent, hydroponically grown Canadian cannabis across this border. CBP seized more than 2 tons of marijuana this year — a 362% increase over 2017 seizures.

"Like, if I bring a bag of cookies to you, how does a guy at the port that sees it on camera know that the bag was just cookies?" Beltrán says. "People here used to say, 'Well, we were always on the honor system.' That's just not the way of life anymore."

The fact is, illegal activity is increasing here in the northeastern corner of Vermont.

Ann Kasowski, of Stanstead, Quebec, crosses into the United States from Canada to enter the Haskell Free Library & Opera House. Kasowski said she lives four houses from the border.
Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for NPR

In 2017, CBP agents caught 165 immigrants; this year they took 822 people into custody in the sector that includes Vermont and parts of New York and New Hampshire. Agents call them P-WACs — people without admission from Canada.

With Trump's clampdown on the southern border, more migrants are discovering the northern route.

People illegally cross into the U.S. from Canada. With President Trump's clampdown on the southern border, more migrants are discovering the northern route.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection

"They're feeling a lot more pressure than they ever have down south, and they found loopholes to exploit via Canada," says Richard Ross, the current patrol agent in charge of the Newport Station. "It definitely has an effect on what we see up here."

Many illegal crossers are Mexicans and Romanians, among the nationalities that don't require a visa to travel to Canada. It's much simpler than swimming the Rio Grande and trekking through sweltering Texas ranchland. They go online to request an electronic travel authorization from Canada, fly to Toronto or Montreal, and pay a smuggler to show them where to cross.

"We're the first land border east of the Great Lakes," Ross says. "There are several major interstates that run to points south, either New York City, Boston, all the way down to Washington, D.C. It's very easy to be in the country and down the road in short order."

Richard Ross, patrol agent in charge of the United States Border Patrol's Newport Station, stands near the international boundary, marked by the slash in the forest.
Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for NPR

Ross drives along a road that parallels the border, pointing out the open areas where people cross illegally amid the dairy farms, hayfields and maple groves. Without a 30-foot-tall border wall or a heavy deployment of agents, the Border Patrol up here depends on ground sensors and game cameras.

Of course, the numbers are a drop in the bucket compared with those on the southern border. Last May, a single group of more than 1,000 people crossed into El Paso, Texas. Yet, 822 apprehensions in a year are significant by the standards of the sleepy northern divide.

Even the public library has gotten dragged into border intrigue.

The Haskell Free Library & Opera House actually straddles the international boundary — the children's section is in Vermont, and the rest of the stacks are in Quebec. The stately old edifice opened more than a century ago when both towns were one close-knit community. But these days, the librarians have to keep an eye out for more than noisy patrons.

The Haskell Free Library has a piece of black tape along the floor marking the international boundary. "The library staff has to keep a sharp eye on who comes and goes," Scott Wheeler, who publishes a local history magazine, says.
Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for NPR

"It's even been used to smuggle, because you can go in and out of the Haskell without checking in at either customs," says Scott Wheeler, standing outside the library.

Last year, a Montreal man was sentenced to prison for stashing a backpack full of handguns in the library bathroom for an accomplice to take across the border.

Moreover, Iranian families from Canada and the U.S., prevented from going back and forth by Trump's travel ban, had been using the library's reading room for emotional family reunions. A green and white Border Patrol vehicle now parks outside the library.

"The library staff has to keep a sharp eye on who comes and goes," Wheeler says.

The Border Jets, a novice hockey team, practice at the Pat Burns Arena in Stanstead, Quebec. The team is made up of both Canadian and American players.
Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for NPR

Two towns and two countries

Vermont state Rep. Brian Smith, a Republican, misses the old days.

"It was like it was one town and two countries," he says, wistfully. "Now it's two towns and two countries. And now nobody goes back and forth as much anymore. There's still a little bit."

Yet some of the vibe of "one town, two countries" survives.

Stanstead, Quebec, provides water and sewer service to Derby Line, Vt. Their fire departments help each other out with big blazes. There's even a binational youth hockey team called the Border Jets.

And not every cross-border street has a steel barrier. Church Street connects Derby Line and Stanstead. Right next to the Haskell Library, the street is blocked off, with the border demarcated by a row of flowerpots.

"Basically what happened is I was the one that put the flowerpots there," says Stanstead Mayor Philippe Dutil. He says he had the planters installed after several incidents when Canadian visitors drove down Church Street and accidentally crossed into the U.S., only to be surrounded by Border Patrol vehicles.

"I put those flowerpots there so you can't cross with a car anymore," says the mayor, proudly, from Stanstead City Hall.

So there you have it: a floral border barrier, and Canada paid for it.

: 11/21/19

Previous audio and Web versions of this story incorrectly stated that a man was smuggling guns into the U.S. from Canada. The man was smuggling guns out of the U.S. and into Canada.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Flower planters delineate the border line and block what was once an open street along the U.S.-Canada international border connecting Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vt.
Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for NPR

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The southern border gets all the attention, with President Trump's massive wall and the backlog of asylum-seekers stuck in Mexico. But things are tense on the northern border with Canada as well. The number of people crossing illegally at that border is on the rise, and residents complain that heightened security has changed the character of the once-neighborly frontier. Here's NPR's John Burnett.

UNIDENTIFIED ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE OFFICER: Are you able to exit it out...

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: As proof how things have tightened up on the northern border, we're detained just after we cross from Vermont into Canada. Turns out, our guide, a local journalist and historian named Scott Wheeler, didn't know he was supposed to check in at the Canada inspection station.

SCOTT WHEELER: Do you want me to pull over?

UNIDENTIFIED ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE OFFICER #2: What you guys are going to do, you're going to follow my colleague. He's going to make a U-turn.

BURNETT: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE OFFICER #2: And then we're going to head back to the port of entry.

BURNETT: Two polite, officious agents with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police confiscate our passports and escort us back to the port of entry, where they'll question us about our intentions inside the monarchy. Wheeler says for years he could cross from Derby Line, Vt., into the sister city of Stanstead, Quebec, with a smile and a wave to border agents.

WHEELER: And that's just kind of life on the border is changing.

BURNETT: Since 9/11, border agents check everybody. And it's gotten even stricter since Trump took office, especially here on Canusa Avenue - the name's a hybrid of Canada and USA. The international boundary actually runs for a third of a mile along the street, then it curbs north into Canada, where we crossed by accident.

With Mounties in front of us and behind us, Wheeler drives back to the checkpoint.

WHEELER: Canusa Avenue is one of the hot-button places now. As you can see - you know, can you imagine owning a house on Canusa when you have to go through this?

BURNETT: To find out what it's like to own a house on Canusa Avenue at a time of tightening border security, I asked two neighbors to meet me on the street on their respective sides of the white boundary line.

JANICE BEADLE: My name is Janice Beadle, and I live in Beebe Plain, Vt., on Canusa Avenue.

MARIE VALLIERES: I'm Marie Vallieres, and I live on Canusa Avenue in Canada.

BURNETT: Because the U.S. customs checkpoint is on her street, Beadle has to stop every time she goes to the drugstore or get groceries. Last year, she says it got worse. A big steel barrier was installed at the end of Canusa to control vehicle access.

BEADLE: To me, I feel it's very intimidating just to have the barrier there. It's like a wall.

BURNETT: Marie Vallieres agrees. She says several neighbors, including Beadle, are trying to sell their houses because coming and going has become such a hassle.

VALLIERES: I used to be able to cross over and see my friend that used to own that house and just go have a glass of wine with her and come back. And now, like Janice says, it's a barrier. We feel it.

BURNETT: Today Vallieres is afraid to walk across the street for a glass of wine. She can't even take a bag of fresh-baked cookies to her neighbor without drawing the attention of authorities.

BURNETT: Fernando Beltran, a retired Border Patrol official, points out that smugglers are moving potent Canadian cannabis across this border.

FERNANDO BELTRAN: Like, if I bring a bag of cookies to you, how does a guy at the port that sees it on camera know that the bag was just cookies? The honor system - it's like the people here used to say - well, we were always on the honor system. I mean, that's just not the way of life anymore.

BURNETT: Fact is, illegal activity is increasing here in the rugged and beautiful northeastern corner of Vermont. In the last two years in this region, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has logged a 400% jump in apprehensions of people crossing illegally from Canada. That's the biggest increase anywhere along the 5,500-mile northern border. In 2017, they caught 165 immigrants. This year it was 822 people. Many are Mexicans and Romanians, who are among the nationalities that don't require a visa to travel to Canada. They fly to Toronto or Montreal and pay a smuggler who brings them here and shows them where to cross.

RICHARD ROSS: We're the first land border east of the Great Lakes.

BURNETT: Richard Ross is the patrol agent in charge of the nearby Newport Border Patrol Station.

ROSS: There are several major interstates that run to points south - either New York City, Boston, all the way down to Washington, D.C. It's very easy to be in the country and down the road in short order.

BURNETT: He's driving along a road that parallels the border, pointing out the open areas where people cross illegally. With Trump's clampdown on the southern border, Ross says more migrants are discovering the northern route.

ROSS: They're feeling pressure - a lot more pressure than they ever had down south. And they found loopholes to exploit via Canada.

BURNETT: Of course, the numbers are a drop in the bucket compared to the southern border. Last May, a thousand people in a single group crossed into El Paso. Yet 800 apprehensions in a year are significant by the standards of the sleepy northern divide.

Even the public library has gotten dragged into border intrigue. The Haskell Free Library actually straddles the international boundary - the children's section is in Vermont; the rest of the stacks are in Quebec. The stately old edifice opened more than a century ago, when both towns were one close-knit community. But these days, the librarians have to keep an eye out for more than noisy patrons. Scott Wheeler, the local historian, stands outside the library.

WHEELER: It's even been used to smuggle because you can go in and out of the Haskell without checking in at either customs.

WHEELER: Last year, a Montreal man was sentenced to prison for stashing a backpack full of handguns in the library bathroom for an accomplice to spirit into Canada.

Brian Smith, a Vermont state rep, is sad to see how the twin towns have grown apart. I meet him at a Derby restaurant.

BRIAN SMITH: It was like one town in two countries. Now it's two towns in two countries. And now, you know, nobody goes back and forth as much anymore. There's still a little bit.

BURNETT: Yet some of that one town, two countries vibe survives. Stanstead provides water and sewer services to Derby Line. Their fire departments help each other out. There's even a binational youth hockey team called the Border Jets. And not every cross-border street has a steel barrier. Church Street connects Derby Line and Stanstead. Right next to the Haskell library, the street is blocked off - and the border demarcated - by a row of flower pots. Stanstead Mayor Philippe Dutil.

PHILIPPE DUTIL: Basically, what happened - I was the one that put the flower pot.

BURNETT: You put the flower pots there?

DUTIL: Yeah, it was my idea to put flower pots.

BURNETT: So there you have it - a floral border barrier, and Canada paid for it.

John Burnett, NPR News, Derby Line, Vt.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOARDS OF CANADA'S "CHROMAKEY DREAMCOAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.