Border Patrol roadblocks may be working, but at what cost?
By PAUL SHUKOVSKY
The Border Patrol in Washington is burgeoning in the post-9/11 world. It's got more agents, better equipment, a new station -- and it's making a lot of arrests.
But it has also adopted a tactic that has raised both questions and ire: interior roadblocks dozens of miles from the nearest border.
Since the end of February, the U.S. Border Patrol has operated 53 roadblocks -- border agents call them "tactical traffic checkpoints" -- at the Anacortes ferry terminal, on state Route 20 near Newhalem and on U.S. Highway 101 on the Olympic Peninsula.
The statistics speak for themselves as to the effectiveness of the roadblocks:
81 undocumented immigrants taken into custody;
19 people turned over to other agencies for state crimes; and
24,524 vehicles carrying 41,912 passengers checked.
To the Border Patrol, the checkpoints are a testament to its efficacy in deterring terrorists, stopping drug smugglers and deporting undocumented immigrants. But others say the price of such enhanced security is a diminution of American liberty.
"How much are we willing to give up?" asks Lois Danks, coordinator of the Stop the Checkpoints Committee on the Olympic Peninsula. "Do we give up our freedom of movement and our privacy? If they stop thousands of people and catch 10 people who work in a Mexican restaurant, how much does that increase our security?"
Border Patrol Chief John Bates points out the checkpoints have been ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. And he says that his agents are simply carrying out their duties as defined by the law, which allows such checkpoints within 100 miles of the border. We run these checkpoints to have an impact on the organizations that bring in narcotics, undocumented immigrants or who potentially could bring terrorists or weapons of mass destruction into the U.S.," Bates said.
With organized narcotics and people-smuggling rings, "we are having an impact," said Bates, who said he has received intelligence reports confirming the checkpoints' deterrent value.
"These organizations do know about the checkpoints and that there is a heightened likelihood that they would be apprehended if they brought people or narcotics across the border."
The Border Patrol has been proactive in trying to explain the checkpoints to affected communities.
"We have a mission that we have to conduct," Bates said.
Bates and other agents heard from a largely disgruntled crowd of about 350 Olympic Peninsula residents at a recent meeting at Chimacum High School.
Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Michael Bermudez said the patrol sought to explain that the checkpoints provide "prevention through deterrence."
It was apparently a tough sell. "I wouldn't say it was a hostile crowd, but it was unsupportive of checkpoints. There were people there that no matter what we shared with them, they were not going to feel any different. But I'm sure there were people on the fence who might have been swayed."
Shankar Narayan, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, was not swayed. "I would say the overwhelming energy in the room was a mood of great concern about the expansion of Border Patrol activities on the Peninsula," Narayan said. "The question in the air was, where does this encroachment on our rights end?"
Narayan said the ACLU is exploring the possibility of filing a lawsuit to stop them.
The Border Patrol is the largest uniformed agency charged with carrying out immigration laws. It is caught in the crossfire of people who oppose laws and policies that result in deportation of undocumented immigrants who are productive members of rural Washington communities.
Danks, for example, said she opposes deporting undocumented Mexicans who have been here for years, working hard and raising children who are American citizens.
The Washington Farm Bureau also has concerns about the roadblocks' impact on agricultural communities.
"We've got these workers and neighbors who are our friends," said Dan Fazio, director of employer services at the Farm Bureau. "At what point does it not feel like America anymore?"
P-I reporter Paul Shukovsky can be reached at 206-448-8072 or firstname.lastname@example.org.