Border Patrol "spot checks" on ferries provoke outrage in San Juan Islands
By Sara Jean Green
Seattle Times staff reporter
HARBOR, San Juan County — The people of the San Juan Islands tend to be
independent sorts, espousing a do-it-yourself, leave-me-be ethos as
natural and ever-present as the tide.
But for many of the
17,000 people of this island county, the normal rhythms of small-town
life have hit a dissonant chord lately.
A couple of months
ago, the U.S. Border Patrol began occasional "spot checks" of every
vehicle and passenger arriving in Anacortes off state ferries, the
lifeline between these islands and the mainland.
here, it seems like a good idea or, at worst, a minor inconvenience.
But for a vocal and active faction, the federal agents' aggressive
questioning and demands for identification have spurred outrage.
the islands' coffee shops and the editorial pages of the local paper,
then in a crowded, heated meeting last month, a number of people have
complained that islanders are being unfairly treated and questioned,
even though they haven't left the country and normally wouldn't be
subject to such scrutiny.
Terms like "police state" are hurled
around, as they say the searches are illegal, unconstitutional — and
just a ruse to catch illegal immigrants and petty drug users.
Border Patrol responds that the stops are annoying but necessary, the
cost of keeping the country safe. It maintains that a terrorist could
easily use the same maze of waterways and islands here that for
generations has harbored smugglers, rumrunners and drug dealers.
in this comparatively affluent county, where there isn't a single
stoplight, angry islanders are unsatisfied. They've complained to their
congressional delegates and recently asked the American Civil Liberties
Union to monitor the situation and provide legal advice.
they have rallied around a family who immigrated illegally from Mexico
years ago and were recently caught up in the dragnet. They raised bail
for them and paid their rent while they were detained.
Border Patrol's actions are "hurting good people, even if they are
undocumented," said the Rev. Raymond Heffernan, priest at Friday
Harbor's St. Francis Catholic Church.
Island residents "are
concerned about the invasion to their own privacy and the damage it's
doing to good people — people who are contributing to the community,"
said the 77-year-old priest.
their location 20 or so miles from Canada, the San Juan Islands have
enticed smugglers for more than a century. Complex channels and
isolated coves concealed the import of Chinese laborers and opium in
the 1880s, moonshine during Prohibition, and more recently, potent
marijuana known as "B.C. bud."
And the Border Patrol says terrorists could be next.
Juan Islanders are used to customs inspections in Anacortes if they
take the ferry that comes from Sidney, B.C. Before now, though, they
were never subjected to checks on domestic ferry runs.
changed in February, when federal agents started corralling everyone
off domestic ferries into a fenced-off area in Anacortes and
questioning them about their citizenship. It now happens once, maybe
twice a week; no one has any way to know if they will be stopped.
islanders talk about taking a ferry to the mainland, the joke around
town these days is, "I'm going back to America," said David Jones, the
mayor of Friday Harbor.
"There's a great surge of indignation underneath the surface here," he said.
much so that local attorney Carolyn de Roos recently asked three
Seattle lawyers to come speak at two meetings about residents' rights
and legal options.
Their advice: Don't answer any questions.
island residents who board domestic ferries don't cross an
international border, they "have a right not to reveal anything about
their legal status," said Matt Adams, an attorney with the
Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and a member of the
"Once they're inside the country, Immigration doesn't
have the right to detain someone without reasonable suspicion," Adams
said. And ethnic background, skin color or language don't meet that
But if someone admits to being in the country illegally, Border Patrol can arrest the person.
"It's a vulnerability"
Giuliano, the Border Patrol's deputy chief patrol agent for the Blaine
border sector, says he understands that the stops are a hassle for
But he stresses that the threat of terrorism is no joke.
conceivable that someone could get to the islands by plane or boat, or
board an international ferry in Sidney, B.C., and get off in Friday
Harbor instead of Anacortes. Once in an island community, a person with
nefarious intentions could mix with the locals and then board a
domestic ferry in order to sneak into the country, Giuliano said.
"It's a vulnerability and we're worried that it could be exploited," he said.
have to catch it all to make sure you're not dealing with a terrorist
issue. And, if an immigration issue walks up to you, you're pretty much
compelled to act on it."
As for residents who refuse to
cooperate or answer questions, Giuliano said, agents will still run
their license-plate numbers and search databases, detaining them until
it can be determined whether they are here legally. But if an agent
doesn't have enough information to make that determination, or doesn't
have probable cause to arrest someone, "the thing is let go," he said.
late February and last week, 43 people — 38 of them from Mexico — have
been arrested in the ferry stops, Giuliano said. An additional 141
people from a total of 33 countries were interviewed by agents before
they were let go.
"Oh, no. They've got us"
last year, rumors began circulating among the islands' Hispanics that
the Border Patrol was snaring illegal immigrants who rode the ferries
So for three months, the Sanabria family —
Antonio, Amelia and their daughters Guadalupe, 18, and Carmen, 15 —
never left Friday Harbor.
When they didn't hear of any
arrests, they decided to chance it in February so Guadalupe could take
her driver's-license test on the mainland.
A Border Patrol
agent approached their pickup truck as they got off the ferry in
Anacortes. Antonio Sanabria whispered to his family in Spanish: "Oh,
no. They've got us."
It never occurred to them that they could
refuse to answer the agents' questions, said Guadalupe Sanabria, who
was 2 when her parents illegally came to the U.S. from Michoacan,
The family was sent to a federal detention facility in
Pennsylvania. Even before the Sanabrias were escorted onto a plane,
Guadalupe was phoning friends back in Friday Harbor.
will in small towns, news spread fast. Members of the community managed
to raise enough money to get the family out on a $30,000 bond, and they
were back in Friday Harbor by the end of March — their plane tickets
also courtesy of folks back home.
Even so, the Sanabrias know they will probably lose their bid to stay in the United States.
really thankful our community helped us because if not for them, we
wouldn't be back," Guadalupe said. "It's in God's hands. We just hope
someday there's a way for us to be legal."
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org