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Vt. Town's Way of Life Fades as Border Tightens

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Vt. Town's Way of Life Fades as Border Tightens

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Vt. Town's Way of Life Fades as Border Tightens

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Securing the border is one of the Department of Homeland Security's most important jobs. As with everything the agency has tried to do, balancing security with freedom and the economy hasn't been easy. Critics say the border is still like a sieve in many areas, and efforts to close the gaps have run into strong resistance.

NPR's Pam Fessler traveled to the U.S. border with Canada for this next in our series on the fifth anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security.

PAM FESSLER: Roy Davis stands on a windswept hill near his farm on one of the northernmost points of Vermont. Dry, powdery snow whips past his legs as he points to a stone block in the ground.

Mr. ROY DAVIS: That granite marker right there is on the border between Canada and the U.S.

FESSLER: There are a few houses nearby, but mostly it's open fields and woods as far as the eye can see. For Davis and others in the tiny town of Derby Line, Canada is literally across the street, where friends and relatives live, where you go to shop or pray.

Mr. DAVIS: Not much to tell, but that's the way it is, and it's the way it is every day. And we don't think anything about it being two countries. It's all one country as far as we're concerned.

(Soundbite of wind chimes)

FESSLER: Back inside their ranch house, Davis and his wife, Shirley, bemoan the changes taking place here. The border checkpoint used to be little more than a formality. But last year, residents suddenly began to face much more intense scrutiny. Cars were routinely searched, familiar faces gone.

Mr. DAVIS: They've treated us just as if we were convicts every time we crossed.

Ms. SHIRLEY DAVIS: It's eased up a little bit now, though, but you'd have to get your ID out, and you'd have to open your trunk. It's so different than it used to be. Before, you know, they would wave and smile, and that was it.

Mr. KEITH BEADLE (Derby Line Trustee): Good morning, Buzzy, how are you this morning?

FESSLER: Derby Line trustee Keith Beadle greets pharmacist Buz Roy at Brown's Drug Store just yards from the border. Everyone here is worried about January 31st - that's when Americans are supposed to start showing not only a photo ID but proof of citizenship, such as a passport or birth certificate.

Homeland Security says it needs to know who's entering the country to keep it safe. But Roy asks Beadle, what happens if he forgets his papers?

Mr. BUZ ROY (Owner, Brown's Drug Store): They can't exclude me from my country. They can give me a hard time, but they can't exclude me.

Mr. BEADLE: I don't know what - what would happen, whether there would be fine or - no idea.

FESSLER: There's a lot of confusion here about what lies ahead.

(Soundbite of moving vehicle)

FESSLER: Outside, Keith Beadle acknowledges that smugglers can and do use local side roads and nearby fields to sneak illegal drugs and immigrants into the country and that terrorism is a concern. But he thinks the government's focus is all wrong, that it should be improving intelligence, not clamping down on local residents.

Mr. BEADLE: I realize that we have to be mindful of security, but I think you have to do it in a thoughtful and logical manner, and not just, you know, circle the wagons and, you know, give everybody a gun to protect themselves.

Unidentified Person: Good morning. Welcome to the United States.

Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you.

Unidentified Person: Where do you all live?

FESSLER: Traffic at the nearby Highgate Springs port of entry is light and moving quickly. Homeland Security has been trying to work with locals to address some of their concerns and recently eased the search-every-trunk policy. It also gave supervisors discretion to conduct fewer name checks if traffic is backed up.

Jim McMillan is the Customs and Border Protection port director.

Mr. JIM McMILLAN (Port Director): We're a young agency. We've only been in existence for five years now. We're trying to develop what works best. We're talking totally different times.

FESSLER: He thinks people will find that some changes, such as the passport requirement, will make things easier by allowing officers to electronically scan information that they now type into the computer.

His supervisor, Kimberly Nott, says she realizes the agency has a big selling job to do. She knows it's hard for local people to deal with the new procedures, but says they're here to stay.

Ms. KIMBERLY NOTT (Port Supervisor): Because it's a border and security has now hit Vermont, you know, and they took care of all the big ports and got all the security things there, and now it's starting to come here.

FESSLER: Homeland Security officials say they sometimes feel damned if they do, damned if they don't, that everyone complains about security gaps, then objects when anything's done about it.

But even some Customs and Border Protection officers are unhappy with what's going on here. They say they're understaffed and overworked, and turnover is high.

John Wilda recently retired after 33 years on the Vermont border. He was also the local union rep.

Mr. JOHN WILDA: People are leaving because morale is so low. They don't enjoy the job anymore. It isn't the same. There's no respect for what the people do.

FESSLER: Wilda says customs officers used to have more discretion and that it's been replaced by reliance on documents and technology.

Mr. WILDA: This repeated scan something, let them go, scan, let it go, scan, let it go. You don't have the opportunity to really talk with the people anymore. The sixth sense is the thing that really broke a lot of cases for us. When you would sit there and talk with someone, because it's the nervousness, it's the shifting eyes, it's the carotid artery. It's different things that we're taught to recognize.

FESSLER: But customs official Nott says technology gives officers more time to do their jobs. And sometimes it's good to shake things up, that after the agency started rotating officers in from out of town, there were new arrests.

Ms. NOTT: And they were all frequent crossers. People say that's such a nice guy. He crosses all the time. Well, now you know why. He had, you know, narcotics.

FESSLER: But the department also faces strong opposition from businesses and lawmakers all across the border. They worry that the new security measures could destroy exactly what the country is trying to protect.

Bill Stenger is president of Vermont's Jay Peak ski resort.

Mr. BILL STENGER: They were thinking security, security, security, security. They weren't thinking economy, economy, jobs, people's livelihoods, healthy communities.

FESSLER: He thinks changes at the border are much more likely to stop the Canadians that his business and many others in the area rely upon than it will stop a determined terrorist.

Mr. STENGER: We'll catch this tram.

FESSLER: We take a trip up to the 4,000-foot summit of Jay Peak. There, Stenger points north to a huge, snow-covered field.

Mr. STENGER: And the mountain just beyond that white field is Mount Sutton, and that's one of the more popular ski areas in Quebec, and there are four of them right around our border area that all of our Canadian guests have a choice to use if they choose not to come to Jay Peak.

FESSLER: And that exactly what he thinks will happen if it becomes too hard to enter the U.S.

Recently, Homeland Security worked out a deal with Vermont and other border states to allow secure drivers licenses to be used instead of passports for some crossings, and Congress has delayed a more stringent passport requirement.

It's a start, says Stenger, and so too, it appears, is the growing pushback Homeland Security faces five years after its creation from those who think there are other ways to protect the country.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow we hear proposals for improving the Homeland Security Department, and you can hear the first part of our series at npr.org.

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