(Host) Citing a rise in illegal crossings, the U.S. Border Patrol wants to tighten security between Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Quebec.
Three side streets between those two communities allow people who live on both sides of the border to avoid checkpoints, and authorities want them closed.
One of the streets leads to a treasured landmark intentionally built on the border to foster international friendship.
As VPR’s Charlotte Albright reports, many people want things to stay the same.
(Albright) Coming into Derby Line down a steep hill off the interstate, you can’t miss the fairy-tale spire rising from a stately granite and brick mansion.
The shopping district may have seen better days, but the classy Haskell Library and Opera House building looks pretty much as it did when it was donated at the more prosperous turn of the century by the Canadian widow of an American businessman.
The gardens are tended by Martine Drysdale and Melanie Bergeron, who stroll over from Canada every other Wednesday. Even when toting plants, they say they rarely stop at the border checkpoint a few blocks away from here. Pausing at the front door, Drysdale says closing this side street to cars would be a terrible idea.
(Drysdale) "I would really not be happy. Really not be happy, because I know I’ve heard that they’re talking about setting up barriers here to have a check point? No. This is so comfortable, why start setting up barriers? You create barriers, you create tension."
(Albright) Although the entrance is on American soil, all of the library’s books are on the Canadian side of the building, and half of them are in French. Bergeron, who speaks no English, worries that closing the road would discourage her neighbors from reading and attending performances in the ornate historic theater upstairs. Drysdale translates.
(Drysdale/Bergeron) "People would probably not come as much, and it would be a waste of their time if they would have to report to the American border to get a book and then we would have to report to the Canadian border to get back in."
(Albright) Wouldn’t it be easier, Drysdale muses, to put a back door on the Canadian side of the library?
(Sounds of the library)
(Albright) Inside, as patrons browse through a book sale, village trustee and library board member Keith Beadle walks from the front entrance toward the
circulation desk along a well worn strip of black tape.
(Beadle) "The black line on the floor shows you where you are."
(Sound of steps)
(Albright) "Where are we now?"
(Beadle) "We’re in Canada."
(Albright) Which makes us, technically speaking,criminals. Though it’s never enforced, this law gets broken hundreds of times an hour.
(Sound of door opening
(Albright) Beadle opens not one, but two back-to-back oak doors that lead up well worn steps to the opera house ticket window and lobby.
(Beadle) "We’ve tried to leave everything pretty much as it was on the first night it opened in 1904."
(Albright) Including the same canvas curtain–a richly colored landscape mural of Venice. Under an ornate ceiling, cupids still cavort in the balcony frescoes.
More black tape draws a diagonal line between two countries somewhere around row M Beadle says he understands the need, after 9/11, for tighter borders.
But he notes that the three streets slated for closure or barriers already have video surveillance and alarms.
(Beadle) "What we want is to continue to be good neighbors with Stanstead. We want to continue our way of life. And I guess we have to ask ourselves are we willing to sacrifice our character, our individuality, the things that we treasure in these two villages in the sake of alleged security?"
(Albright) Surprisingly, that rhetorical question comes from the former border patrol officer who once chased a suspected alien before losing him in the woods.
Beadle is adamant about keeping the street to the library open.
But he says he’ll reluctantly put other streets on the bargaining table if he has to.
So will Raymond Yates, Mayor of Stanstead.
But in the library’s fireplaced reading room, Yates notes that the barrier proposal comes in the wake of staffing cutbacks in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
(Yates) "I remember here in Canada when they had the 9/11. When that happened they had implanted RCMP for about two years here. They were parked right here down the road. I would see them every night, I know, I used to go for a walk with my dog. But in the last two years I haven’t seen any of them parked here."
(Albright) So, he wonders, why not bring them back, and add more US customs officers? Yates worries that barriers will impede snowplows and fire trucks as well as tourism.
Like many villagers in both countries, Yates is nostalgic for the days when you could whiz throughcustoms with a smile and a wave, yet he is willing to grant that 9/11 changed all that.
Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy says the Derby Line controversy is just one more example of a flawed plan by the Bush Administration to tighten border security without investing in adequate staffing and infrastructure.
For now, neither the Mounties nor the Border Patrol will talk with reporters. In fact, we were scolded for recording the sound of car engines passing through the American checkpoint.
Authorities are expected to make their case for closing off the streets at a meeting on June 19th at the Haskell Opera House.
That’s when the people of Derby Line and Stanstead will have their say.
For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright.