Islanders weigh in on checkpoints at County Council meeting

Border Protection Agency representative hears citizens, answers questions

Islanders weigh in on checkpoints

Mar 19 2008

By Scott Rasmussen

The San Juan County Council’s newly-fashioned hearing room features some spiffy electronics.

But its cozy confines couldn’t contain the number of islanders who showed up Tuesday to listen to the No. 2 man of the U.S. Border Patrol’s Northwest region talk about the reasons behind the recent citizenship inspections at the Anacortes ferry terminal, or to voice an opinion about them.

As many as 200 people attended what evolved into a two-plus-hour affair. That’s 90 minutes more than had been scheduled.

Council Chairman Howie Rosenfeld, Friday Harbor, wasn’t surprised by the turnout. The inspections, he said, have struck a nerve for many islanders regardless of what side of the issue they’re on. And opponents and supporters took full advantage of their two minutes of allotted time to weigh in on the topic.

“The next time the Border Patrol decides to pull me over for their interrogations, which I truly believe are unconstitutional, I will invoke my Fifth Amendment right because I am not afraid of the Border Patrol,” said Jon Grimsson, a naturalized citizen born in Iceland. “But I am deeply afraid for my country.”

But San Juan Island’s Ary Hobbel sees it from a different point of view. Hobbel, a citizen of The Netherlands with U.S. resident status, has little sympathy for those living in the U.S. illegally, regardless of how neighborly they may be.

“Citizenship is a privilege,” he said. “That privilege should never be taken for granted and, more precisely, it should never be taken.”

The maximum capacity of the hearing room — 49 — was exceeded even before U.S. Border Patrol Deputy Chief Joe Giuliano stepped inside. Latecomers gathered either outside the front door, which remained opened at Rosenfeld’s request, or watched streaming video of the give-and-take, and the two-minute testimonials, on a screen in an overflow meeting area next door.

In his opening remarks, Giuliano said the periodic inspection of those onboard domestic-only sailings in the San Juans are driven largely by the Patrol’s mission to secure the border and prevent the smuggling of contraband, like drugs and people, into the country. Intelligence developed on the national level, he said, suggests foreign-based terrorist groups are “exploring the possibilities” of using established smuggling enterprises as a means of sneaking an operative across the international border.

“Do we have anything that says it’s going to happen on a ferry in the Northwest?”, he asked rhetorically. “No, but we do have a vulnerability that’s been exploited by the organizations they’re trying to work with, so that does cause us some concern. And that creates the rationale for checking a domestic mode of transportation.”

Regardless of the rationale, several council members questioned the legality and the “fairness” of the recent round of inspections. For islanders, Councilman Kevin Ranker said, Anacortes remains the primary transportation link to the mainland and local residents are being unfairly targeted. The council, he said, should ask the state’s congressional delegation to launch a formal inquiry into the “legality and fairness” of the inspections and in the meantime that they be stopped.

Giuliano said there’s no specific law that allows such inspections outside the border. However, he said, there’s no law prohibiting it either and that the type of inspections that are being conducted in Anacortes have been upheld by the courts.

“As long as every vehicle is stopped and dealt with in a similar manner the checkpoint is considered to be valid,” he said.

Others remain skeptical. Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord believes that the Border Patrol may be stretching the definition of “functional equivalent,” under which its agents can inspect those arriving at an international airport, to justify what would appear to be “roving patrols” at the terminal in Anacortes.

Legal questions notwithstanding, Councilman Gene Knapp, Orcas East, asked whether such inspections are “worth it” given that two dozen people have been taken into custody for possible immigration violations after inspection of nearly a half-dozen boats.

In response, Giuliano said, “It’s not big numbers we’re after. The reality is that one person with the wrong attitude and the right equipment could create a significant problem for these United States.”