Sheriffsdecry lack of co-operation

Published on Thu, Apr 1, 2004
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Sheriffs decry lack of co-operation

by Meg Olson

Months before a local teen was caught smuggling eight pounds of marijuana on the Point Roberts school bus, county deputies met with the Blaine border patrol about reports of pot coming into Point Roberts from B.C. and then heading south on the school bus. “Basically nothing was done,” said county undersheriff Carey James.
Blaine sector deputy chief patrol agent Joe Giuliano disagrees. “We have an ongoing intelligence operation and our people have been there,” he said. However, Giuliano compared the eight pounds of marijuana seized on the Blaine school bus with the 3,700 pounds seized on the mainland last year and said “it’s not going to be one of my priorities.”

In frustration over a lack of response from federal agencies in dealing with cross-border crime in Point Roberts, James released details of almost a year’s worth of requests for assistance to the Border Patrol that he said went unanswered.

According to an October sheriff’s office memo local deputies met with Blaine border patrol agent in charge Loal Vance in summer 2003 and showed him “trails, footbridges and gates leading from Canada to Point Roberts,” and the area near Monument Park where they suspected marijuana was coming to Point Roberts. A deputy reported that they had been left with the impression border patrol agents would periodically patrol the Point but that “no agents have patrolled Point Roberts in my two-year tenure.” The memo also states deputies had asked Blaine Sector chief Ron Henley to send border patrol agents to the Point. “He said he had limited resources and would not be able to address the situation,” they reported. Henley did not return calls to confirm the statement.

Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks the Blaine border patrol sector has seen their resources more than double and the number of agents go from 47 to 152. Under the new department of homeland security, national commissioner of customs and border protection Robert Bonner said significant resources were being directed to beef up the northern border. However the focus of the spending has been on stopping “low-risk, high dread” threats like nuclear weapons, not bags of pot. “Our priority mission is anti-terrorism,” Bonner said on a March 4 visit to Blaine.

James said the sheriff’s office was told the border patrol was no longer insuring their vehicles to travel through Canada, so they were unable to respond to Point Roberts. Giuliano confirmed that there had been a lapse in the Canadian policy during the transition to the new department of homeland security but that the situation had been resolved. “It’s one of those things that temporarily fell through the cracks,” he said.

The border makes Point Roberts a jurisdictional jigsaw puzzle for law enforcement. Unless deputies catch someone breaking state law, which doesn’t include jumping the border, they can’t arrest them, nor can they turn them over to the port of entry for arrest. “It’s crazy because the border patrol is who has the authority to arrest illegal aliens,” James said. He added deputies routinely arrested people with criminal records who would have been excluded from the United States at the port of entry, and found they had entered the country along the beach, or on a trail in the woods. In addition, a camera at the port of entry can monitor people who cross the border illegally along Roosevelt but inspectors can’t leave the port to stop them. “If the border patrol won’t respond, what good is it?” James lamented.
The Delta newspaper has reported that Delta police routinely intercepts or observes illegal border-crossers and have a “heightened awareness” of the attraction Point Roberts’ open border has for smugglers.

With no one guarding the Point Roberts border except at the port of entry, James said it was a smuggler’s dream. “You have drugs or whatever coming across because it’s easier to get them across here and then transport it,” he said, which with a marina and an airport would pose little challenge for smugglers headed south. “If someone wanted to get something into the United States and get it further into the U.S., what better place is there?” he said. “The school bus is part of that problem. They’re thinking who’s going to search a school bus?”
Giuliano insisted the border patrol would respond to border enforcement concerns on the Point if they knew about them. “We haven’t had a call from the sheriff’s office in two years,” he said. “If there’s an issue we’re more than happy to work it out.”

It would appear two years of escalating tension between the sheriff’s office and the border patrol may be at the root of the problem. The two years came up again when sheriff Bill Elfo told a community meeting in Point Roberts, “We haven’t had the border patrol up here in two years.”

James, who was chief of Blaine border patrol for five years before retiring in 2001 following a 30-year career with the border patrol, said leadership needed to start meeting and he suggested Blaine sector chief Ron Henley start attending the monthly chief’s meetings in Bellingham attended by federal, state and local laws enforcement leadership. Henley did not respond to requests for comment. “It’s time for him to reach out because it’s been done by everybody else,” he said.

Congressman Rick Larsen will be getting into the mix next month with a series of April meetings planned with both agencies in Point Roberts. “We consider it a priority to protect Point Roberts and make it safer,” said Larsen representative Abbey Blake. “Congressman Larsen wants to get some boots on the ground information.”