Tension and wariness grow in border towns

U.S.-Canada line made harder to cross

September 24, 2001|By Scott Calvert | By Scott Calvert,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BEECHER FALLS, Vt. -- Locals know them as Fred and Ivan. But now the two genial U.S. Customs agents who staff this sleepy crossing at the Canada border are forcing even friends and neighbors to pop the trunk and, in some cases, step out of the car for a quick inspection.

Ten minutes down the rolling road in Colebrook, N.H., population 2,500, the four-member police department is getting reports of "suspicious" people, which is to say those who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent.

It would be an exaggeration to say in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that life has turned upside down on the remote northern front, where moose-crossing signs outnumber stoplights, and snowmobiles are a popular wintertime mode of transportation.

Things have changed, though. Not only is that apparent to people coming home after shopping or getting a haircut in Quebec; some residents also say they feel less safe since the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"I'm thinking some very disturbing things," said Charles Jordan, editor of the weekly Colebrook Chronicle, adding that it is hard to know what is unthinkable anymore.

Arrests near border

Although no evidence clearly shows a Canadian link to the attacks, last week the FBI arrested Nabil Al-Marabh in Chicago. Published reports say he is suspected of having aided the hijackers. How he entered the United States is unclear, but in June he was arrested on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls for carrying a forged passport.

And in December 1999, Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian living in Montreal, was stopped trying to enter Washington state with bomb-making materials in his car.

Trained in Afghan camps a year earlier, he was reportedly part of a broader plot to bomb U.S. targets during end-of-the-year celebrations. Five days after Ressam's arrest, two people were detained at Beecher Falls on suspicion that they were part of a terrorist plot as well. They were later cleared.

In Congress these days, there is talk of tightening controls along the northern border that stretches more than 3,000 miles and has more than 100 formal entry points.

At New Hampshire's only official crossing, in Pittsburg, the attacks prompted Customs to shelve a plan to use a video inspection system between midnight and 8 a.m. The crossing will continue to be staffed 24 hours a day -- a move U.S. Rep. Charles Bass, a New Hampshire Republican, called good for "the security and safety of Americans."

Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican on the House Immigration subcommittee, is one of the proponents of tougher Canada-U.S. border controls.

The congressman "believes our northern border is porous, checkpoints often aren't even staffed, and that must change," said his spokesman, Brad Bennett.

Businesses affected

Residents here regard such views warily. Henri Morais, who owns the Candlelight Restaurant and Lounge in Beecher Falls, said he agrees with rigorous inspections but does not want it to become difficult to move across a border that, for many, exists only as a line on a map.

"For us," he said, "it's like going to the next town."

Morais estimates half his customers live in Canada, about two blocks away. Twenty-eight workers at the Ethan Allen furniture factory reside across the border and often go home for lunch.

At Laughton's General Store, where splashes of crimson and gold brighten the trees, owner Jayco Laughton sells plenty of gas to Canadians because lower taxes here translate to a 20 percent discount. Liquor and cigarettes are popular for the same reason.

For Vermont and New Hampshire residents who make trips to Canada, the strong U.S. dollar slashes the cost of everything from clothing to home improvement supplies.

The links go beyond commerce. French voices are all over the radio dial. Businesses trumpet their bilingual skills -- "Nous parlons francais" reads a sign at the Spa Restaurant. When fire breaks out in East Hereford, Quebec, the Beecher Falls Volunteer Fire Department responds.

Going back and forth has long been easy, and never more so since the passage of free-trade agreements over the past 15 years. For locals, questions asked at the border often ran to, "Did you have fun?" Inspection of trucks amounted to "basically nothing," said Laurent Rancourt, owner of a trucking company in Clarksville, N.H.

`Increased vigilance'

On Sept. 11, Customs moved to the highest state of alert near Mexico and Canada, meaning "substantially increased vigilance."

It caused delays of 12 hours at heavily traveled ports such as Detroit and lines at Beecher Falls, though much shorter ones.

Customs agents began peering into trucks' cabs, sleeper compartments and loads to make sure no one had sneaked inside, with or without the driver's knowledge.

Jordan, the newspaper editor, said he has imagined wild scenarios that he admits sound paranoid, such as: "We may have been stopped before the border, there is somebody in our trunk and we're being forced to drive."

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