By SCOTT RASMUSSEN
Back in January, U.S. Border Patrol officials couldn’t say how often ferry riders on domestic routes serving the San Juans would be questioned about their citizenship upon arrival in Anacortes.
The answer, it would appear today, is regularly.
Twice last week, Border Patrol agents questioned ferry riders arriving from the San Juans about their travel and citizenship during a series of so-called “spot checks” at the Anacortes ferry terminal. Passengers that disembarked three separate ferries were questioned and a total of eight people, including a family of four from San Juan Island, were taken into custody for possible immigration violations, according to Joe Guiliano, deputy chief patrol agent for the Blaine Patrol section of Customs and Border Patrol.
All eight, Guiliano said, waived the right to contest their detention before a federal judge and voluntarily agreed to return to Mexico, the home country of each. The soon-to-be deported San Juan Island family members are a husband, wife and two daughters, 18 and 14 years of age, Guiliano said. The other four, all men under the age of 30, will be escorted back to Mexico as well, he said.
Their identities have not been confirmed. Where they are being detained could not be confirmed.
The wife of one Orcas Island resident said on March 10 that, with the aid of an Orcas Island advocate, she was able to locate her husband in jail in Tacoma. Immigration officials gave her the location, but not the address of where he was being held. The wife has lived on Orcas for over three years, and has been worked as a housecleaner, and at Rosario Resort. She is a documented resident. Her husband doesn’t have residency identification. He has lived on Orcas Island for over five years, working in construction. The couple have an 18-month old child and are expecting another baby in two months.
“We got a lawyer,” the wife said, “and there will be a hearing on March 12 to see we can reduce the bail.”
The man’s bail is currently set at $15,000.
“I have to do the best I can,” said the wife, “because I will not be able to work after I have the baby and be a single mother.”
Guiliano said islanders can expect the periodic “transportation checks” in Anacortes to continue and the frequency to increase once the international run starts up later this spring. Similar inspections are being conducted on the roads and highways across the region, he said.
“[Ferry passengers] can anticipate we’ll be around for some time and certainly when the international run starts up,” he said. The checks are intermittent because if a specific routine or schedule was established, it would be self-defeating, “because the bad guys would figure it out,” Guiliano said.
“When it becomes well known that we can show up from time to time then we don’t need to be there as often, once that deterrent value is established.”
Giuliano defined “the bad guys” as terrorists, immigration violaters, drug law violaters and organized criminals involved in human and drug smuggling, and said that in the last six months, between eight to ten people had been apprehended through checks on the ferry routes. Most are from Mexico and Central America, Russia, and Serbia, he said. “I can’t recall a single instance when someone was taken into custody and not found to be illegally in the U.S.” Giuliano said.
Giuliano said that the State Ferries Division of the Department of Transportation is notified from the Border Patrol’s Bellingham office whenever there is a border patrol operation; however Susan Harris of the State Ferries said that they were made aware of the checks on March 3 “just before it had occurred; after they had responded ‘huffily’ when they’d not been notified” previously.
Border security and immigration may be hot topics nationwide, but local elected officials are nearing a boiling point now that the primary transportation link that connects the San Juans to the rest of the state has been targeted by U.S. Border Patrol. County Councilman Alan Lichter, Orcas West, believes local residents are losing the right to come and go as they please simply because they depend on the state ferry system.
“I think this is pushing the scrutiny much too far,” Lichter said. “These are U.S. citizens going from one location in the U.S. to another U.S. venue.”
Washington State Ferries spokeswoman Susan Harris-Huether said Anacortes is the only WSF ferry terminal where such inspections have taken place to date.
Council Chairman Howie Rosenfeld, Friday Harbor, concedes that the U.S. Border Patrol has the authority to conduct its inspections. But he said those taken into custody at the Anacortes checkpoints are Mexican and wonders whether race may have been a factor.
“They have a perfect legal right to do that,” Rosenfeld said of the inspections. “The question is whether there’s racial profiling going on.”
Guiliano rejects such suggestions. He said agents determine whether greater scrutiny is warranted based largely on a person’s response to several routine questions, and that they’re trained to act if a response raises “credible suspicion” that something doesn’t add up. In any given year, he added, about one-third of the people apprehended for entering the U.S. illegally in this region, regardless of ethnicity, came from Canada.
“Even though the ferry didn’t come from Canada, some of the people onboard may have,” Guiliano said. “I know when people are backed up in a line they can get frustrated. But we don’t know who’s who until we ask the question; 99.9 percent of the time we’re satisfied.”
Issues of civil rights notwithstanding, Councilman Kevin Ranker, San Juan South, fears the inspections could undermine the local economy by creating transportation delays and a climate of suspicion. Much of the islands’ tourism-based economy depends greatly on the flow of traffic through Anacortes and the throng of visitors that travel onboard the state ferry system, he said.
“These type of border checkpoints do exists elsewhere in the United States, however, this hasn’t happened before on Washington State Ferries,” he said.
“If this is going to happen, I think we need to have our senators and congressmen explain to us why this is appropriate. We’ve already had a decline in ferry ridership and in tourism dollars and this sort of action by federal agencies isn’t going to help.”
Margie Doyle contributed to this article.