Citizenship Checks on Wash. Ferries Stir Controversy

The U.S. Border Patrol has started regularly checking the citizenship of passengers on certain ferries inside Washington state. Such nationality checks are common in the Southwest, but along the Canadian border, they're still relatively new — and to many people, the checkpoints have come as a shock.

A ferry from Friday Harbor on San Juan Island to Anacortes, a town on the coast, follows a domestic route — it never leaves U.S. waters. Yet, when it arrives in Anacortes, there's a chance that passengers will be greeted by the Border Patrol.

Joe Giuliano, a Border Patrol spokesman, explains what might happen if there is a checkpoint when this ferry docks.

"We're asking you your nationality and citizenship. ... If you have no paperwork with you, then we either have to be convinced by you, or run some other records checks, either on your vehicle or the name you give us, to attempt to validate that," he says.

Close Enough to Canada

Washington state's San Juans are a cluster of picture-postcard islands known for small farms, bed-and-breakfasts and whale-watching. They also happen to be close enough to Canada that an illegal immigrant or a smuggler might kayak across and then take a domestic ferry to the U.S. mainland. The Border Patrol says that's why it needs to have a "choke point" at the Anacortes dock.

On this day, though, it looks as though there will be no checks. Passengers are let straight off the ferry — and Vinnie O'Connor is relieved not to have to stop and attest to his citizenship.

"If it bugs me [to have to answer that question], I'm not going to say anything. I want to get through the line and get in my car and go home," O'Connor says.

It certainly bugs some people. William Ginsig, who lives on Orcas Island, encountered the checkpoint for the first time a couple of weeks ago.

"When we got there, there was this big guy, came over to the car. I rolled down the window, and he says, 'Oh, you're American, go ahead.' The hysterical part about all this is, my wife is a French citizen," Ginsig says.

Rights to Privacy

Upset islanders even called Seattle immigration lawyer Matt Adams, director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, to give them a mini legal seminar.

"They can ask you where you're from; they can ask you to show your papers or to show your driver's license or to show your birth certificate — but you don't have to provide that information," Adams says.

Because these checkpoints are not on the border, people have a greater right to privacy, Adams says.

"What I suggest to individuals is to politely refuse to answer questions, and then if they still don't let you go, to say 'Am I under arrest? If I'm not under arrest, I'd like to continue on my way,' " he says.

There have been a few protests: A couple of passengers tried answering the citizenship question by flashing American flags that they had painted on their wrists. They were only delayed. But for illegal immigrants, the stakes are higher.

An Immigrant's Perspective

On San Juan Island, an illegal immigrant from Mexico watches the ferry arrive. Asking not to be identified, she says she no longer dares to go off the island.

"If you go off island and you don't have the whole family with you and you get stopped there, you're going to get deported, and what about the rest of your family?" she says.

She says she feels trapped — but not everyone is sympathetic.

"If you do something willfully and you say 'I'm not going to pay attention to this law,' and then that law catches up with you, then the right thing to do is accept the consequences," says Chris Clark, a longtime Friday Harbor resident.

Clark is annoyed at fellow islanders who oppose the checkpoints. He says the number of illegal immigrants on the islands has jumped in the past decade or so. Some locals complain about being undercut by illegal workers, especially in the landscaping business.

Tightening Security

Border Patrol spokesman Giuliano says it's time that enforcement caught up.

"The Border Patrol presence on the northern border was not really what we would have liked it to have been for a great many years," Giuliano says. "And in the wake of 9/11, we're starting to get resourced up, and we're finally reaching that point where we're doing these things that, in all honesty, we should have been doing all along."

Many locals acknowledge that border security probably needs to be tighter. But on these cozy islands, high security still comes as something of a culture shock.

"It's a visceral thing," says Howie Rosenfeld, chairman of the county council. "It just seems like we're not the free and brave country that we were. We seem to be sinking into some sort of a fear-based society."

Rosenfeld says he plans to cooperate with the checkpoints, but he hopes it isn't something he'll have to get used to.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.