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On the Edge

Riding Vermont's northern boundary with the U.S. Border Patrol


Published December 5, 2007 at 12:34 p.m.

No one entering the United States illegally is ever happy to see George Woodward. But if you’re going to get caught by a U.S. Border Patrol agent, he seems as decent as they come. The 50-year-old supervisory agent cut his teeth on the job, as all Border Patrol agents do, in the southwestern United States. At the time, the Del Rio, Texas, native had young children at home; he used to buy extra diapers and baby formula to bring with him on patrol, for the times when he caught someone coming across the desert with an infant or toddler.

Woodward doesn’t encounter many families with small children sneaking across Vermont’s northern border, where he now works. Nor does he find people “stuffed into the trunks of cars like luggage,” or left to die of dehydration or heat stroke in 115-degree trailers. “Up here, it’s a different thing,” Woodward explains. “Human smuggling still happens a lot, but a little more humanely.”

Which isn’t to suggest that the 27-year veteran hasn’t nabbed his share of “really bad people” ferrying aliens and contraband into the United States. Woodward, 50, is tall and lean, with grayish hair and bright blue eyes that make him look like Steve McQueen. A quiet and friendly guy, he’s more than willing to entertain a reporter’s many questions.

But that casual demeanor probably flies right out the window when Woodward encounters someone at, say, 3 a.m. in the woods outside Highgate trying to smuggle drugs or weapons into the country. As he puts it, “This job can be hours of mind-numbing boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror.”

It’s exclusively the former on a recent Thursday morning in the U.S. Border Patrol’s Swanton sector — a 261-mile stretch of international boundary running from the Maine/New Hampshire state line to Ogdensburg, New York. That day, our only burst of excitement comes when a herd of loose pigs tears across the road. While that’s bad news for a journalist looking for a story to tell, “all quiet on the northern front” is just the way Woodward likes it.

And there’s good reason for the calm spell. Just 24 hours earlier, Vermont U.S. Attorney Tom Anderson announced the indictments of two highly sophisticated human-trafficking rings, the largest ever apprehended in this region. The unsealed indictments allege that the two groups — one a Korean ring operating out of Toronto, the other a Salvadoran outfit based in Montréal — smuggled hundreds of undocumented aliens into the United States between 2004 and 2007 from such countries as Pakistan, India and South Korea.

None of those undocumented aliens, it’s believed, were headed specifically for Vermont; according to Anderson, they were all transiting through the state en route to larger cities such as Boston and New York City. And, while there’s no evidence that any of those foreign nationals were part of terrorist groups, Anderson admitted there’s no way of knowing for sure.

“When an organization has established a pipeline to get aliens from different countries, including countries with terrorists, they don’t care who’s passing through that pipeline, as long as they’re paying,” he said at last week’s press conference in Burlington.

Since those arrests were made in August, illegal border crossings into the Swanton sector have dropped to a trickle. Clearly, breaking up the operations was a feather in the caps of Border Patrol, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the various other law-enforcement agencies that cooperated on the investigations, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Korean National Police.

Nevertheless, the revelation that two highly organized human-trafficking rings were able to operate undetected for several years in Vermont and New York State only highlighted the vulnerability of America’s northern border. Although the porous nature of the U.S./Mexican border is well documented, there’s been a renewed emphasis on closing the gaps in America’s longer and less-patrolled northern boundary.

“A lot of people say this is the longest unguarded border in the world,” says Woodward, as we patrol a stretch of Line Road, a narrow dirt lane that zigzags back and forth between Vermont and Québec. In fact, the only way to know which country you’re in is to look for the small, white stone markers that delineate the actual border. Woodward cautions, “Just because you don’t see a person here doesn’t mean you’re not being monitored.”

To illustrate his point, he points to a video camera mounted unobtrusively in a tree. It’s just one of countless pieces of detection equipment Border Patrol uses, along with infrared monitors (to detect human movements), magnetic sensors (to detect vehicles) and seismic instruments (to detect both).

As a member of the green-uniformed Border Patrol, Woodward has the job of keeping an eye on the vast stretches of wilderness and water that lie between official ports of entry. He’s not to be confused with the blue-uniformed U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, who staff the country’s 170 official border crossings, such as those at Highgate and Derby Line. Also, a word to the wise: Don’t refer to either as “border guards.” As one Border Patrol agent noted, it sounds “too East German.”

Since 9/11, the primary focus of both agencies, as well as of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — the one that investigates undocumented workers and conducts workplace raids — has been to stop terrorists. Admittedly, preventing the flow of illegal drugs and undocumented workers into the United States remains a priority, Woodward says. But when he shows up for work each day, it’s the events of that Tuesday morning in 2001 that stand out most in his mind.

And with good reason. While the vast majority of people who sneak across the southern border are Mexicans or other Latin Americans looking for work, those who cross the northern border illegally are coming from a wider variety of countries — at least 100 different nations in 2006 alone, according to Border Patrol statistics. These include many countries known to harbor terrorists. The Swanton station headquarters at the Franklin County State Airport house a world map showing all the different countries of origin of the people Border Patrol has apprehended. It looks like a pincushion.

While nearly 12,000 Border Patrol agents watch America’s 1900-mile southern border, only 972 agents cover the more than 5000 miles of border with Canada. Clearly, that vast region poses significant threats to homeland security. Between October 2006 and June 2007, the General Accounting Office (GAO) simulated seven illegal cross-border movements, including four along the U.S./Canadian border. As the GAO’s Gregory Kutz told the Senate Finance Committee on September 27, there are “significant challenges” to effectively monitoring that border.

Specifically, Kutz said, “Our work shows that a determined cross-border violator would likely be able to bring radioactive materials or other contraband undetected into the United States by crossing the U.S./ Canada border at any of the locations we investigated.”

While Kutz also noted that Border Patrol successfully stops many individuals from crossing the border illegally, “our own observations and experiences . . . lead us to conclude that more human capital and technological capabilities are needed to effectively protect the northern border,” he said. The GAO report didn’t note where those simulated crossings took place, and it’s unclear whether the Swanton sector was included in that exercise.

For his part, Woodward keeps himself out of the fray of Washington politics and public debates over illegal immigration. For instance, he won’t comment on contentious issues such as the Minutemen — the group of anti-immigration citizens who’ve taken to patrolling the borders themselves — or the recent dust-up in Derby Line about morale problems and high attrition rates among CBP officers.

“I do my job and my agents do their jobs,” Woodward says. “Whatever the politicians and the public want us to do, go ahead. We’ll focus on what we’re charged to do.”

Speaking of Homeland Security



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