Marijuana legalization and immigration are debates that impact every community in Washington. But for residents of a small city on the Canadian border, these issues hit especially close to home.
LYNDEN, Wash — The border between Washington state and Canada is demarcated by two parallel roads surrounded by long stretches of farmland.
As a boy, Gary Vis can remember darting through this area to a fishing hole where he and his friends used to spend summer afternoons.
“It was that easy to cross into Canada,” recalls the executive director of Lynden’s Chamber of Commerce.
Vis grew up among the raspberry fields and dairy farms of Lynden, WA. A small border city just south of Canada, Lynden was once known for having the most churches per square mile worldwide. Tulips fringe the sidewalks of the downtown square, and storefronts capitalize on the city’s Dutch heritage.
But behind this quaint facade is a city complicated by its proximity to the border.
In 2006, U.S. Border Patrol busted a drug tunnel in the basement of a residence just north of Lynden. The incident was the very public tip of a long-standing issue. Most of the town’s growing crime rate is related to drug smuggling. But, human trafficking, purported surges in gang violence and alleged human rights violations also plague the northern front.
Trafficking and smuggling numbers have dropped in recent years—partly because of heightened security—but residents of Lynden and other border regions, claim that the “geographical quirk” of being located right on the border has recently led to monumental changes in its social fabric.
“Every week there’s something in the local newspaper,” said Vis. “And the activity has changed. When I was kid, you’d see [someone] longhaired with a backpack and you could tell they were trying to get away with something. Or [that it was] somebody sick of the army. Now you’ve got Chinese gangs, human trafficking, smuggling, terrible amounts of that.”
After 9/11, attention was directed at securing the borders with Canada and Mexico to stop people from crossing illegally. But with marijuana legalization on the ballot this November, candidates and Washingtonians will have to pay heed to border issues for a new reason. Residents of Lynden suspect legalization will have varying effects on the community, but most agree that it would reduce the rate of drugs smuggled across.
In 2011 591 arrests were made by border patrol agents in the Blaine sector, down from 673 the year before and 843 in 2009. Last year 13,717 lbs. of drugs were seized, coupled with $345,687 in illicit currency and 41 lbs. of marijuana, making Blaine the third busiest port of entry for criminal activity in the north.
“It’s amazing how much drugs come down. And it’s hard to track because if [smugglers are] successful, then there’s no data,” said Joseph Larsen, a graduate of Western Washington University, who completed his dissertation on the illicit flow of drugs through the Pacific Northwest.
There’s still plenty of controversy around people sneaking themselves into the US as well. Immigrants from as far away as India, Germany, Korea and South America have been apprehended here. Some say Lynden’s raspberry fields lend themselves to illegal crossing, with the arrangement of raspberry plots just the right size for cars carrying illegal immigrants to bulldoze across the border, off-road.
One local resident who asked not to be named connected illegal immigration to a rise in petty crime in Lynden and a generally unsafe atmosphere uncharacteristic of a small town.
And then there are the “men in green” as Border Patrol agents are known around town.
After 9/11 the Blaine sector of border patrol (which encompasses most everything west of the Cascades, including Alaska and Oregon) grew itself to just over 300 agents from 48 in 2001, an nearly sevenfold increase.
“We’re like the front line law enforcement,” explained spokesman, Richard Sinks.
Locally, the surge in border security has been met with ambivalence. Some residents identify an overabundance and misuse of staff, claiming that Border Patrol is overzealous, intervening before local law enforcement. Immigrant advocacy organizations like OneAmerica, have alleged racial profiling of the region’s growing immigrant population. Agents will apprehend an individual for a minor violation—like a broken taillight—and then question his or her status.
For Bob Boule of Smugglers Inn, the padded security is reassuring. The owner of a small bed and breakfast just a few steps from the Canadian border, Boule has seen 64 arrests in his own backyard. He is grateful for the quick response time and strong backing of border patrol, but he doubts that the legalization of marijuana under I-502 will impact this illicit activity.
“The (border) is as active as it’s ever been,” he said. “There are just more people getting caught.”
Vis, on the other hand, says the community is disgruntled with border agents, many of whom are transplants from the south. He recognizes the critical job they do, but says they often don’t integrate with Lynden’s small town atmosphere.
“Now there are 300 plus new folks that don’t know everybody, nor do they have the time to go and introduce themselves,” said Vis. “And when you’re in a rural community that’s close, it’s always a good idea to bring a box of donuts over once and a while.”
Other residents of Lynden echo Vis’ concern, saying that the increased presence of Border Patrol has led to tense relations. In a meeting at Town Hall last February residents requested greater outreach with the community. Border patrol responded with a weekly crime blotter and twitter account.
“There’s a level of frustration and not with the individual, with the entity,” said Vis. “In a day and age when people seem to be extremely sensitive to federal government intervention—especially in rural conservative communities—it’s always beneficial for those representing the federal government to take the time to engage on a different level.”
Vis insists that Lynden has retained its sense of community in the face of these challenges. He points to its history of immigration—first with Dutch laborers, and now a growing Hispanic population—and says that shared experience of being an outsider in a new country will equip them as a border community.
“We still have pockets of challenges,” said Vis. “It’s adapting to our northern border. There isn’t a delicate way to handle it sometimes. It’s horribly unfortunate. But it’s a process that’s going to have to evolve, and the only way you evolve a process is to make a mistake.”
He cautions that the smuggling and trafficking along the border have the potential to ripple out. They’re border issues, but they have state and national ramifications.
“They aren’t trying to get into Lynden,” reminds Vis of the criminal activity. “We’re just the door. They’re trying to go through the whole house.”