DERBY LINE, Vt. - The changes started coming slowly to this small
town where the U.S. border with Canada runs across sleepy streets,
through houses and families, and smack down the middle of the shared
First was the white, painted lettering on the pavement on three
little side streets - "Canada" on one side, "U.S.A." on the other. Then
came the white pylons denoting which side of the border was which.
After that, signboards were erected on some streets, ordering drivers
to turn back and use an officially designated entry point.
And along with the signposts came an influx of American Border
Patrol agents, cruising through the town in their sport-utility
vehicles with sirens, chasing down cars and mopeds that ignored the
For longtime residents accustomed to a simpler life that flowed
freely across a largely invisible border, the final shock - and what
made most people really take notice - was a proposal by the border
agents last year to erect fences on the small streets to officially
barricade Derby Line from Stanstead, Quebec, and neighbor from neighbor.
"They're stirring up a little hate and discontent with that deal,"
said Claire Currier, who grew up in this border area and works at
Brown's Drug Store, which has operated on the same spot since 1884.
"We've all intermingled for years."
For the Department of Homeland Security, the changes are part of a
gradual fortification of America's northern border that began shortly
after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has accelerated in
The hardening of the northern frontier is unsettling to many in the
small towns along the border. For as long as most of these people can
remember, the line between the United States and Canada has been little
more than a historic curiosity, rather than the hard and fast
demarcation that is America's southern border.
Named the Secure Border Initiative, the project calls for more than
tripling the number of agents along the northern border, adding boats
and helicopters, and deploying sophisticated new technology including
hundreds of millions of dollars in new communications equipment,
radiation detectors and three different types of camera-mounted sensors
in the uninhabited wooded areas.
"It was freer before, but we live in a different world now," said
agent Mark Henry, the operations officer at the Border Patrol's Swanton
Sector, headquartered in Swanton, Vt. The sector encompasses about
24,000 square miles, extending from the town of Champlain, in upstate
New York, on the east all the way across to the border with Maine. The
sector now has 250 agents, up from 180 three years ago, and the number
is scheduled to reach 300 next year. In 2001, there were 340 agents
along the entire border with Canada.
"9/11 changed everything," said Border Patrol agent Fernando
Beltran, the operations chief for Swanton Sector's Newport station,
which includes Derby Line. "This may have been Mayberry before, but
it's not anymore."
Residents of this town of 776 understand the need for enhanced
security. They also wistfully remember a time when neighbors easily
crossed into another country to visit neighbors. People went to church
and to school on either side of the line. Members of the same family
lived on either side. Some streets, an old factory, the local library
and opera house, and a few houses straddle the line.
"I have one brother - he's American. He was born on the U.S. side. I
was born on the Canadian side," said Arthur Brewer, who is 76. "It was
like there was no border."
Townsfolk are concerned about practical issues with fences. The two
sides share a water system, a sewer system and snow-removal services.
For years, the fire departments of both sides have helped each other
without regard to a border, and fences, they fear, might disrupt travel
routes for emergency vehicles.
"It hasn't been an easy issue for either side to digest," said
lifelong resident Karen Jenne, the Derby Line town clerk and treasurer.
"But we understand that Border Patrol and Homeland Security have a job
The new vigilance has led to more arrests of people crossing
illegally and interdiction of contraband, mostly drugs. Border agents
in this sector said that last year they arrested people from 117
different countries trying to enter the United States illegally.
The resources here are still a small fraction of what is deployed on
the southern border with Mexico. But with the increased Border Patrol
presence, the North is starting to look more like what border residents
of Texas, California and Arizona have been seeing for years.