Post-9/11 Border Security Shakes Up The Olympic Peninsula
Liz Jones: "I'm standing on the bank of the Sol Duc River. A sign nearby says 'no swimming.' This area is just between Port Angeles and Forks, right off of Highway 101. This is near the spot where a Latino man from Forks recently jumped into the river, trying to run away from border patrol agents."
The body of Benjamin Roldan Salinas was found three weeks later, down river. His death in May has sparked new fear, controversy and attention on the role of border patrol in this remote area.
Forks is a tiny, blue–collar town on the edge of the Olympic National Park. Its main street is lined with casual restaurants, a few tourism outfits and a colorful Mexican market.
Some 3,500 people live here; about a quarter of them are Latino.
A mobile home park sits a few blocks from downtown. Near dinnertime, it seems lifeless except for two Mexican men bent under the hood of an old truck.
Aurturo Alverado: "Many people have left, and they continue to leave because of increasing pressure from border patrol. A lot of people have moved to other towns nearby."
[English translation of Aurturo Alverado's interview by Liz Jones.]
Both men say, although they're legal residents, agents have stopped and questioned them for no apparent reason.
His friend, Alberto Garcia, jumps in to say he thinks border patrol makes this area less safe for Latinos.
Garcia: "It's less safe. Unfortunately, the border patrol intimidates people. So now, people won't call the police to report a crime because they're afraid border patrol will intervene."
[English translation of Alberto Garcia's interview by Liz Jones.]
And people who are undocumented fear any encounter with border patrol could lead to arrest and deportation.
The border patrol does not release arrest numbers, but local immigrant advocates have tracked nearly 120 detentions in the past three years. Before then, these cases were pretty rare.
And this is a key shift: The border patrol here used to mainly focus on the actual border. But since 9/11, agents have stepped up their patrols farther afield. Forks is 60 miles from the border.
Since 9/11, the border patrol on the peninsula has swelled from just four agents to about 40. That's based on public testimony from a whistleblower who's also an agent at the Port Angeles station.
Across the country though, Homeland Security says it's boosted agents on the northern border by 500 percent since 9/11.
Victor Velasquez: "My name's Victor Velasquez. I was born in Mexico, but I was raised here in Forks."
Vesalquez is now an administrator of the nearby tribal school.
He battled discrimination as a kid. But over the years, he's proudly watched his community become more of a cultural melting pot of loggers, Native Americans and Latinos.
Velasquez: "Things have regressed since the magnification of the border patrol presence here. The community as a whole is starting to suffer like it did before, like it did when I was a child."
Velasquez thinks the border patrol's crackdown on Latinos has reintroduced old clashes in his hometown. He accuses some agents of racial profiling, and he fears others here follow that example.
In the wider community beyond Forks, others have also raised concerns about the border patrol. Some question whether their traffic checkpoints infringe on civil liberties. Some farmers say their costs have shot up as workers flee the area.
I met up with border patrol supervisor Joe Romero at the Port Angeles station.
Liz Jones: "Is this your truck here?"
Romero: "Yeah, well go ahead and get in this. Is that alright?"
We head over to the construction site of their new headquarters. As we talk, a driver in the next lane distracts us — with a thumbs–up.
Liz Jones: "You know that guy?"
Romero: "No, no. We do get a lot of support, just like that. We'll get a lot of thumbs–up and people telling us to keep doing what we're doing."
We park outside an old, gutted out Eagles Lodge. It's being renovated to house up to 50 agents.
Romero links the need for more border security here to an incident in 1999. The so–called Millennium Bomber, Ahmed Rassam, was caught at the Port Angeles Ferry Terminal with explosives.
Romero: "Now, this wasn't his target area. But he still came through here. We can't afford to be the weak link that doesn't follow–up and try to do everything we can do to stop that kind of criminal activity, and have somebody else be affected by it."
Romero says his agents spend most of their time on cross–border or criminal activities, and gathering intelligence.
Romero: "Being proactive, being deterrent is what's key for us. So what we have to do is continually maintain an effort not to let people in. The results may not always be immediate."
Those results — or lack of results — have come into question recently because of the whistleblower I mentioned earlier. He's worked here as a border patrol agent here, and he claims some agents are bored and depressed because there's little work on the peninsula.
An internal investigation is underway, but Romero insists agents have plenty of work here. Some critics think a scarcity of criminal activity on this border has prompted agents to focus more on undocumented immigrants.
Romero disputes that claim. He says immigration enforcement is just part of their job. If they suspect someone is in the country illegally, they'll follow–up. He explains they look for suspicious behavior, not people of a certain race.
Romero: "I guarantee you at no point can we go to courts and say, I pulled him over because he's brown and spoke Spanish. The courts are going to throw that out every time."
Aside from adding more agents here, Romero says another big change since 9/11 is better coordination with local law enforcement.
Port Angeles Sheriff Bill Benedict agrees with that. However, he says the power dynamic between his office and the border patrol has shifted.
Benedict: "They've gone from being kind of the little brother to big brother. They're now the biggest law enforcement agency on the peninsula."
Benedict's a former Navy pilot, and he supports the border patrol's mission. Yet he also questions their growth spurt and its effectiveness.
The sheriff would like to see more justification for this huge taxpayer expense.
Benedict: "The discussion as to the size of the border patrol presence anywhere is one that should include the local folks, and should be essentially a policy debate that we look at the risk, the reward, benefits and so forth. And not keep it into a cloak of secrecy."
Benedict's also heard the concerns that undocumented people are afraid to call the police. He explains he does call border patrol to occasionally assist with translations and backup, but he's clear — agents are not allowed to question the legal status of a victim or witness.
Still, immigrant advocates say undocumented people won't take the risk. Going forward, they hope continued talks with border patrol and local officials will help ease tensions.
Agent Romero says he welcomes the chance to explain his agency's work, and their approach to undocumented immigrants. To him, the border patrol's mission is black–and–white. Part of that clarity comes from 9/11. He joined up after that, but he's talked to a lot of agents about the weight of those attacks.
Romero: "And they'll all tell you, they had a sense of failure. As a country, we failed. We failed our communities and it stung."
The past 10 years have changed this community, the people who protect it and the way they all think about security. But that sting of failure, Romero says, that still feels the same.
I'm Liz Jones, KUOW News.
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