The Swanton Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol covers western New York State, all of Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey. I paid a visit to the headquarters up in Swanton, Vermont, to talk with a couple agents who protect the dangerous border between the U.S. and Canada.
Amy: How many agents are working along the northern border of the United States?
Agent A: I don’t know the exact number but it’s approximately 500 right now. Does that sound about right?
Agent B: Yup.
Amy: About 500 along the northern border. And how many along the southern border?
Agent A: About 10,000.
Amy: That’s unbelievable… What are some of the things that you deal with on a daily basis up here in the Swanton Sector?
Agent B: It varies everyday but we have intentional illegal entries, people who intentionally crossed the border because the want to come to the United States. They want to live and work here. We have people who inadvertently end up here, on the back roads. They get lost and they don’t mean to be here and once they realize, oh, I’m in the United States, sometimes they’ll turn around and go back. We meet with other law enforcement agencies. Sometimes we stop people for traffic infractions. We patrol the border—
Amy: You patrol every single foot of the border?
Agent B: Well, not all of it’s accessible but we patrol the area around the border, on the roads that lead up to the border.
Agent A: We’re looking for violations. It could be smuggling of anything from people to drugs to liquor, cigarettes. The exchange of money back and forth through the drug trade. Just about any type of illicit activity, we end up being there. People fleeing the country to escape a murder charge. But, predominately it’s illegal immigration.
Amy: There are a lot of roads connecting Vermont and Canada. Not only primary and secondary roads, but also fourth-class roads and trails. How do you maintain that? Are you guys out there on four-wheelers in the summertime and snowmobiles in the wintertime?
Agent B: If someone’s on a road that actually crosses the border, then there’s a good possibility that they’ll activate a motion sensor or an electronic sensor and a closed circuit TV camera. If they’re out in the middle of the woods, they may or may not set off a senor. We can’t put them up everywhere, just where it’s most obvious that someone’s going to cross.
Amy: Not only are there roads shared between the U.S. and Canada, but water is as well. Lake Champlain, for example. I was wondering how you maintain the border on the water, [Pointing at picture of U.S. Border Patrol boat] but I see now that you guys patrol on boats as well.
Agent B: We have ATVs, we have snowmobiles, we have boats, we have helicopters and 4-wheel-drive vehicles that we drive in the wintertime on the back roads. A lot of the time the back roads, the fourth class roads like you said, don’t get priority treatment, which is a snowplow. So we need a 4x4 to get around. We have quite a variety of vehicles at our disposal. And plus, we get out on foot.
Amy: It was interesting what you telling me earlier [before the interview started], that the boats have a heat-sensing… thing on them so that you can see people lying down in boats coming from Canada-
Agent B: No, that was the helicopter.
Amy: Oh, that was the helicopter that has that.
Agent B: It’s the helicopter that has the built-in infrared, which looks for things generating heat. That’s how the helicopter was able to spot the boat. It had eight people on it so it was giving off a pretty big heat signature.
Amy: How closely do you work with local and state law enforcement to make sure everyone’s informed and, sort of, on the same page?
Agent B: There’s a checklist called Operation 100. Dispatch takes care of it. But, if the RCMP, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or the Quebec police force, if there’s a bank robbery or if something happens along the border area, they make one phone call and that puts Operation 100 into effect. It goes out to the Teletype to all the police agencies so everyone’s brought online in a short period of time. [Turning to Agent A] They used to have it quite a bit before you came up here.
Agent A: I haven’t heard of it.
Agent B: No? Operation 100. You’ll hear it. Sooner or later you’ll hear it: “All units, there’s an Operation 100 in effect. Stand by for the following info.” Usually it’s a bank robbery in the first town across the border. They’ll give a description of the subject and the car and “last seen heading toward the border area.”
Amy: And then, it’s like everyone’s on a manhunt to try and get the bank robber?
Agent B: Well, it’s a heads-up that in the event the guy does cross the border on a back road, you can be like, “Wait a minute, they’re looking for a Chevy Malibu, green with a Quebec plate and one just crossed on a back road up on Albury.” Whoa, watch yourself because there’s an Operation 100 where they’re looking for that guy.
Amy: And how closely do you work with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police?
Agent B: They’re on our frequency. We talk to them, they talk to us… How should I put this? Not all RCMP are Border Patrol. There’s a division of the RCMP that is Border Patrol and that’s what they do. The RCMP does a lot. They have officers that are attached the Canada Customs and agents that are attached to Immigration and there are some that do Dignitary Protection, kind of like that we’d call Secret Service work. The Canadian Patrol patrols the border on the Canadian side, just like what we do on the American side. Our sensors and cameras can see if someone is leaving the U.S. illegally, then we’ll call it out to the RCMP.
Amy: I noticed when I emailed you, the email is—
Agent B: D.H.S.
Agent B: Department of Homeland Security.
Amy: This is a new agency. Did that transition change your job?
Agent B: For us, we pretty much stayed intact. There was a big change at Customs and Immigration at the ports of entry. They amalgamated, whereas before it was a specialty. Before, you were a Customs Inspector or you were an Immigration Inspector. If someone drove up and wanted to talk to you about duty and “Am I going to have to pay duty on this?” and “Is it duty free?”, they’d say “Park and go inside and talk to a Customs agent. I’m Immigration.” Or, a Customs inspector was on the line and someone said, “I have a student, my son wants to go overseas and be a foreign exchange student…” they’d say “I’m Customs. You need to talk to Immigration.” But now under the Department of Homeland Security, it’s going to be combined. They’re going to be called what’s a Customs and Border Protection Inspector. CBP. But us, everything basically stayed intact. Our main job is to patrol the border between the ports of entry looking for people that are trying to cross illegally. If the people are terrorists, we’re going to go after them; if they’re drug smugglers, we’re going to go after them. If they’re illegal entrant aliens, they’re not Americans and they have no legal right to be here, we’re going to go after them. More emphasis now is on trying to keep the terrorists out and trying to be high-profile along the border.
Amy: The Swanton Sector of the U.S. Border patrol. How far south does it go? Into Massachusetts?
Agent A: It varies.
Amy: How far south have you been—
Agent B: I’ve been to Bennington.
Amy: --to chase someone.
Agent B: Oh, I don’t chase them but I’ve been to Bennington to arrest an illegal alien.
Agent A: [Showing map] This is the Sector Map. This is the state of Vermont so you can see that it goes way down. The stations can go operational all the way down to the border of Vermont and New York. It’s cut off a little over here.
Amy: That’s the range of your jurisdiction?
Agent A: We can arrest anybody anywhere in the United States but, operationally, typically where we patrol would be in this area and 99% of the time it’s all just along the border.
Agent B: We don’t go on fishing expeditions. No one’s going to drive three and a half hours to go look for an illegal alien that might or might not be there. If we get a call from the Bennington Police Department and they say, “We’ve got this guy for drunken public disorderly and he’s sitting in the drunk tank.” By law he has to sit there until he blows double zeros on the alco-sensor. How long will that be? “Well, that’ll be about six hours or so.” Well, you know what? In about four hours, put him on the phone, I’ll need to talk to him… [Then later] You’re not an American? “No, sir.” You were born where? “I was born in,” whatever country. Pick your country. “I was born in Haiti” or whatever. What’s your status? “Well, I don’t have a status. I came in two years ago as a visitor and I’m still here.” So we’ll check it on the computer. Yup, yup. This is you? Did you come in through La Guardia airport on June of 2000? “Yeah.” And you’re still here and you never left. “Yeah.” O.K., you realize you’re illegally in the U.S.? “Yeah, I know.” O.K., put the officer back on the phone. By the time he blows double zeros in two hours from now I’ll be about an hour away from you. Can you hang onto him for an extra hour, because I’m coming down to get him? But we don’t go down, three hours from the border, on a fishing expedition.
Amy: For every foreign person that comes to the States, is it put into a computer? And then when they leave, it’s, like, deleted? So there’s a huge list of people, you know, are they here or are they not?
Agent B: Border Patrol doesn’t, but Immigration does.
Amy: Oh, O.K.… How do they keep track of all that?
Agent B: Well, I shouldn’t say every foreign person because Canadians are allowed to cross without a passport. As well as we can go to Canada without a passport. But if you’re from a country other than Canada and you’re required to have a passport and a visa when you show up, you’re going to have to go and present that. Officials are going to fill out some forms and they’re going to put a stamp in your passport. Also, on this card that they stamp, called an I-94, it says that you’ve been admitted at JFK Airport as a visitor until such-and-such a date. And one of the main things that people do is, once they realize they’ve stayed past the date, they’ll pull that card out of the passport. One of the first things you do when they hand you their passport is look for that I-94. You ask them, “Hey buddy, where’s your card?” “Oh, it fell out.” [Laughing] “Is that right, it fell out.” Well, on the same page as the card, they stamp the “Admitted Until” date, so unless the guy’s going to throw out his passport… It’s just glaring, the missing card. It’s so obvious that they’ve over-stayed. Thinking they’re going to trick us.
Amy: [Laughing] They’re probably thinking, “I’m sure they have seen this before…”
Agent B: Yeah, maybe it’ll trick a policeman somewhere far away from the border who’s not used to looking for that stuff. It’s not going to trick a Border Patrol Agent or an Immigration or Customs Officer.
Amy: I heard that there’s a swath cut out along the trees along the U.S./Canada border, so that if a hunter shoots a deer in the U.S. and he’s tracking it, he’ll know he has reached the Canadian border.
Agent B: Yes, it’s maintained by the International Boundary and Water Commission. I think every ten years they come in and thin it out. The idea being -- we call it the ‘Border Slash’ or the ‘Cut Line’ -- the idea being that if you’re standing in the Cut Line next to a border marker, you should be able to see the next boundary marker about an eighth of a mile away. Then you know exactly where the border is. It’s about 50 feet wide.
Amy: So if a hunter tracks his deer up to the swath, is he not allowed to chase it into Canada?
Agent A: Nobody would be allowed to enter another country without actually clearing Customs first.
Agent B: There was an incident last year. A guy shot a deer up near Highgate and it crossed into Canada. He went to Phillipsburg, which is the Canadian port of entry on I-89. He told them that he shot the deer and wanted permission to track it. They called the Quebec Game Warden. He arrived and said, “O.K., leave your rifle in the States and jump in the truck with us. Take us to the area where you think the deer is.” The Canadian Game Warden did track the blood and they found the deer. Then they told the guy he could take it back. That’s the only time I think it’s ever been legally done. Usually, I think that if someone shoots a deer on the American side and it runs over to Canada, I think they go over and get it and then they drag it back. But this guy did it right.
Amy: Seems like a whole lot of extra trouble to go to… I think that’s all the questions I have.
Agent B: Okay. So are you going to go out and ride around?
Amy: Yeah, I’d like to. That would be fun.
* * *
I thanked and said goodbye to Agent A while Agent B showed me out to the squad car. It looked like standard-issue police car with lights on top and everything. It was white with a green stripe along the side that read, “Border Patrol”. I waited outside the car while Agent B pulled out a jacket, bulletproof vest and AK-47 machine gun from the passenger seat to put in the back. Feeling nervous about the gun, I asked if it was real. Yes, it’s “as real that guns come.” Why did I ask that? As if Border Patrol Agents drive around with big fake guns. These guys don’t mess around. The pistol and baton and things all around Agent B’s belt should have been enough to tell that me the Border Patrol is the real deal.
We drive north from Swanton up to the U.S./Canada border. Agent B shows me the white stone posts that mark the boundary and the swath cut through the trees. We drive into the woods and at the end of the dirt road we see a car. I ask Agent B what he thinks this car is doing here and he says it’s probably just a hunter. We walk in a ways and he shows me some of the hidden cameras. It’s all pretty creepy in an intel/covert way. There are cameras along the entire border that are tripped by movement. When they go off, a message is sent to a radio room filled with monitors. Agents can then pull the appropriate camera up on screen and see if it was a large animal, person, or vehicle. The cameras are purposefully set a ways off the ground so that smaller animals like cats or raccoons aren’t continuously setting it off.
As we head back to the squad car, Agent B takes note of the unknown car’s number plate. He calls it in and by the time we’re back on the main road, a dispatcher is calling him back with the vehicles info: who owns it, where and when it was bought, if the driver has had any past criminal offences.
The ports of entry are usually two buildings: one on the Canadian side (for people heading into Canada) and one on the American side (for those coming into the U.S.). Some of the ports along the border on the American side close at midnight but every other port is open 24 hours so that if you stop by one and it’s closed, you won’t have to drive more than 8 or 10 miles to get to another one that’s open.
We stop by one port of entry that actually sits right on the international boundary. The inside is one big, open area but each half of the building is, technically, in a separate country. Agent B joked that both sides have their own bathrooms but the kitchen is on the American side. He also said that the only other port shared like this is in Washington State. While we were talking, a car pulled up to the Canadian side. I don’t go up to Canada much or, in fact, at all. I’m not used to the questions that the Canadian Agent was asking: “Where do you live? Where are you going? Are you bringing anything into the country?” These questions seem so invasive. I usually fly on domestic flights and am used the same old questions asked in a bored manner: “Did you pack your own bag?” Yes. “Did anyone ask you to bring anything on the flight with you?” No. On the border here, it’s much more serious.
Agent B takes me back and forth across the border in the squad car more times than I can count. It’s fairly easy to cross in a car but every time we did, we tripped a sensor and could hear it called out over the radio. One thing that surprised me the most was that there are some houses on the Canadian side right next to houses on the American side. The people living in those houses are neighbors but living in different countries. I ask Agent B what would happen if the American family wants to invite their Canadian neighbor over for dinner. They can’t just walk over, can they? Well, no. They’d have to go down to the port and clear it with Immigration first. Again, it seems like a whole lot of extra trouble, but it’s the legal way to do it.
Just like it would be helpful for Border Patrol Agents on the southern border of the U.S. to be bi-lingual, so it is here. Agent B knows quite a bit of French and he has several charming anecdotes about dealing with the local Québécoise. The road signs around here, like “STOP” and “You are now in the United States”, say the same thing in French.
The U.S. Border Patrol, at least in the Swanton sector, gets a lot of help from locals. People living along with border will report weird cars or abnormal occurrences. Recently, a local man called in and said that strange cars with New York and New Jersey plates had been parking down by the lake. There was no reason for anyone to be there so the guy had taken his dog for a walk and went to ask if those people were lost. “No,” they said. Could he help them out? “No.” So he called it into the U.S.B.P. who then installed some motion detectors down by the water. Less than a week later, the sensor was tripped and the area zoomed in on by a camera. Sure enough, there was a boat approaching the cars on shore. The boat was full of non-Canadian people coming into the U.S. through Canada.
There may only be about 500 Agents working along the northern border of the United States presently, but over the next few years that number is going to triple. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but these guys are doing a good job.