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This is the kind of thing you expect to happen in some unstable foreign country or in an old movie. You're traveling within a country, yet you come to a checkpoint and someone says, your papers, please. It's happening in more of the United States. The US Border Patrol is checking the citizenship of passengers on certain ferries that travel the waters inside Washington State. Such checks are common in the Southwest, but along the Canadian border, they're relatively new. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the checkpoints have come as a shock to many people.

MARTIN KASTE: This is a Washington State ferry, running from Friday Harbor on San Juan Island to Anacortes, a town on the Washington State coast. This is a purely domestic route. We never leave US waters. And yet, when we arrive in Anacortes, there's a decent chance that we'll be greeted by the Border Patrol.

Mr. JOE GIULIANO (Spokesman, US Border Patrol): We're asking you your nationality and citizenship.

KASTE: Joe Giuliano is on the phone. He's a Border Patrol spokesman, and he's walking me through what might happen if there's a checkpoint when this ferry docks.

Mr. GIULIANO: 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.

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

Unidentified Man: All passengers must disembark the vessel upon arrival.

KASTE: Although today, it looks like there won't be any checks. They're letting us straight off the ferry. Passenger Vinnie O'Connor is relieved not to have to stop and attest to his citizenship.

Does it bug you in any way to have to answer that question?

Mr. VINNIE O'CONNOR: Well, if it bugs me, I'm not going to say anything. I want to get through the line and get in my car and go home.

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

Mr. WILLIAM GINSIG: 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.

KASTE: Upset islanders even called in a Seattle immigration lawyer, Matt Adams, director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. He came out and gave them a mini legal seminar.

Mr. MATT ADAMS (Director, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project): 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.

KASTE: He says because this isn't a checkpoint on the border, people do have a greater right to privacy.

Mr. ADAMS: 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.

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

(Soundbite of banging sound)

KASTE: 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 island.

Unidentified Woman: If you go off island and you don't have all the family with you and then you get stopped there, you're going to get deported. And what about the rest of your family?

KASTE: She says she feels trapped, but not everyone here is sympathetic. Chris Clark is a longtime Friday Harbor resident.

Mr. CHRIS CLARK: If you do something willfully and say I'm not going to pay attention to this law and then that law catches up to you, then the right thing to do is accept the consequences.

KASTE: 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. Border Patrol spokesman Giuliano says it's high time enforcement caught up.

Mr. GIULIANO: 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. 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.

KASTE: Many locals acknowledge that border security probably needs to be tighter. But on these cozy islands, higher security still comes as something of a culture shock. Howie Rosenfeld, chairman of the county council, tries to explain the feeling.

Mr. HOWIE ROSENFELD (Chairman, San Juan County Council): It's a visceral thing. 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.

KASTE: Rosenfeld says he plans to cooperate with the checkpoints, but he hopes it's not something he'll have to get used to.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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