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Terror on the Inner Border | The Nation

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Terror on the Inner Border

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Havre, Montana

About the Author

Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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Al Qaeda's murderous assault on New York City and Washington on September 11, 2001, set off a chain reaction that has transformed the political discourse in the United States and sent reverberations around the world. At the same time, it has altered the way communities throughout this vast country function and the assumptions by which individuals in cities and hamlets across the millions of square miles that are America live their lives. Even in tiny outposts like Havre, Montana (population 9,621), less than fifty square miles of sparsely settled farmland south of the border with Canada, a profound cultural and psychological shift has occurred.

Havre--traditionally a rather lawless western cowboy community--now considers itself a front-line town in the battle to secure America's borders and defend its open interior, and its politicians and businessmen have enthusiastically, and largely uncritically, embraced their town's new role. It has become a key operational base for northern Border Patrol sorties, and Amtrak trains stopping in the old Havre train station are now routinely boarded by Border Patrol officers looking for noncitizens who lack the paperwork needed to stay in the country legally. In a country at war with a faceless enemy, many of the residents of Havre have convinced themselves that it has become a stomping ground for terrorists and that Border Patrol sweeps of its trains and train station are an effective way to combat these enemies within.

There is no doubt that the United States does face real threats, but in many ways Havre has become a modern-day Potemkin Village. It is a place where expensive, resource-intensive Border Patrol activities provide the illusion of counterterrorism effectiveness while mainly netting only tourists who have overstayed their visas, illegal immigrants from Latin America hopping around the country in search of jobs, and would-be refugees and asylum seekers. As Americans, faced with a fanatical foe, have traded in constitutional protections for promises of security, ceding core freedoms and principles in exchange for ever-tougher law-enforcement actions that merely create comforting holograms of safety, so Havre provides a window onto the patterns that have taken hold in the nation at large.

The Havre sector office of the Border Patrol is responsible for securing hundreds of miles of the northern border, running across several states, and since September 2001 dozens of agents have been relocated here from the Mexican border, bringing with them a warrior mentality formed during years of struggles with drug gangs, people-smuggling coyotes and thousands of desperate migrants seeking hope north of the border. Stopping people as they come off the trains at Havre (the only station for hundreds of miles at which the trains stop for more than a couple of minutes) is one of the jobs to which these agents have been assigned. The railway sweeps started in the late 1990s as a part of the "war on drugs." Since 9/11, however, these spot passenger inspections have been massively expanded.

Havre's residents generally aren't complaining. Its leaders seem to enjoy all the new activity and attention. And the arrival of about forty federal agents and their families in town in 2003-04 provided a much-needed boost to the local economy, which had taken a beating in recent years because of the depopulation of the plains and collapsing agriculture prices.

Realtors like Mary Blair recall that the influx of well-paid federal agents pushed up housing prices by 10 percent or more. High-end houses that had been on the market for months suddenly sold. "It was a delight to have a number of new families come into the community," says Blair. "It was like a breath of fresh air." The schools, which, according to Superintendent Kirk Miller, had seen a 25 percent decline in enrollment over the previous decade, saw their numbers stabilize, bringing in state dollars that were tied to the size of the school population. Home-improvement and furniture stores, restaurants and car dealerships all saw their business increase.

"It's difficult to talk about it from an economic perspective, because you know what's behind the buildup [of Border Patrol agents] is the tragedy of 9/11 and the whole international war on terror," says Paul Tuss, the ebullient director of the local Bear Paw Development Corporation. "Although, from a parochial interest we certainly appreciate the day-to-day economic activity it's brought to the region. There's obviously a trickle-down effect. I wouldn't say our economy is hot right now, but for this reason and for other reasons the Havre economy is a tick up from where it was two or three years ago."

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