Derby Line and adjoining Stanstead, Québec, have been so closely connected for more than 200 years that three residential streets run seamlessly across the invisible line demarcating their respective countries. The Haskell Library and Opera House, built smack on the border in 1904 as a symbol of Canadian-American friendship, attracts tourists who enter the handsome stone-and-brick building from Vermont and walk across a painted diagonal line to the checkout desk in Québec.
But now the U.S. Border Patrol aims to erect barriers on the three unguarded international streets. As a result, Canadians may no longer be able to park in Québec alongside the communities’ shared library and walk to its entrance in Vermont. Québecois book borrowers might instead be required to report to the U.S. border station two blocks away and return to Canada through its authorized port of entry on the northern side of the Tomifobia River.
U.S. officials are expected to present their proposals and elicit public comment at a June 19 meeting at the Haskell Library. They’re likely to get an earful from locals on both sides of the border. “I think it’s ridiculous,” Emily Dupont, a waitress at The Old Customs House restaurant in Stanstead, says of the move to install checkpoints. “They’ll be separating two communities that are closely related.”
Says Mary Roy, a Haskell librarian, “It’s a bad idea.” A longtime resident of nearby Newport, Roy wonders what barriers would achieve. “They already have cameras and sensors and patrols. Isn’t that enough?”
Stanstead Mayor Raymond Yates says he understands American officials’ desire to heighten security in response to an apparent upsurge in unauthorized border crossings via the three streets. Last year, for example, U.S. agents intercepted two vans carrying a total of 21 undocumented Asian and Latin American immigrants after they entered Derby Line via one of the streets. But Yates also worries that barriers will introduce an element of distrust as well as physically disfiguring the town.
“We’re an example to a lot of countries because we’ve been getting along very well for two centuries,” he says. “If you put up a fence, people on the other side will start asking, ‘Am I not treating my neighbor well enough?’
“We have many things in common with one another,” Yates adds, citing the emergency services and water and sewer systems shared by the two communities.
Hundreds of Stanstead residents also routinely visit Derby Line solely in order to buy gasoline and milk, each of which sells for about 50 percent less on the Vermont side. Daily traffic in the other direction includes Americans eager to play the slots in a nearby casino, as well as young Vermonters thirsting for the opportunities offered by Canada’s lower drinking age. Even now, Canadians sometimes endure waits of 40 minutes en route to a filling station and convenience store tantalizingly close to the Derby Line border.
“I’m not sure the plan is going to be that effective,” Roy, the Haskell librarian, comments. “People who want to cross the border illegally can just go across the fields and through the woods down the road.”
It’s all about the money, Mayor Yates suggests. Building barriers represents a lower-cost solution, he says. “They could implant some really high-tech devices on those streets and increase patrols, but that would be more expensive than what they’re proposing to do.”
Had the events of 9/11 not occurred, the discussion about building barriers probably would not be taking place, observes Roland “Buzzy” Roy, one of Derby Line’s elected village trustees. Roy agrees that additional border posts would mar the spirit of unity among the 3000 residents of the twin jurisdictions, but he says concerns about terrorism and smuggling do warrant greater security.
Roy says he hopes only discreet, possibly movable barriers will be installed on leafy Church, Lee and Phelps-Ball streets.
Mark Henry, operations officer for the Border Patrol’s Swanton sector, declined to comment about the controversy prior to the June 19 meeting. His office has jurisdiction all along the border in Vermont, New Hampshire and parts of New York.
A majority of Derby Line residents do not favor new physical separations from Stanstead, Roy adds. “It’s quite possible it will be voted down,” he says of the proposal.
The U.S. Border Patrol has indicated it will not proceed with the plan in the face of strong local opposition, Roy adds. “But whether that will actually happen, I don’t know. Based on my previous dealings with federal officials, I’m not optimistic.”
Vermont Public Television will air a documentary entitled “Good Fences, Good Neighbors” on June 14 at 7:30 pm. The 30-minute program, followed by a panel discussion, examines Vermont-Québec economic, political and cultural relations. Though produced prior to the current border-security debate, it does cite Derby Line and Stanstead as emblematic of the close ties between the Green Mountain State and La Belle Province.