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Terror on the Inner Border | The Nation

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Terror on the Inner Border

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Not surprisingly, Havre has welcomed the Border Patrol--the protection it affords and the federal dollars that come with it--with open arms. When the Border Patrol was debating where to situate a quick-response air unit, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, the mayor, the three county commissioners and the development corporation lobbied heavily--although ultimately unsuccessfully--to have it located in Havre. "There's a little more sense of security here, increased surveillance. You see 'em [Border Patrol agents] downtown, you see 'em in the coffeeshops," says 57-year-old retired naval officer and current mayor Bob Rice, sitting in an office with a Navy poster outside that says LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF ALL WHO THREATEN THEM.

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

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The mayor wears a tie printed with the American flag, and his jacket lapel sports a mini star-spangled pin. "Before 9/11," he continues, "we had about fifteen Border Patrol agents here. We didn't think too much about the border, about terrorism. We used to make jokes about the border crossing. Post-9/11 we now have a different emphasis on the border. We now realize the bad guys could come across. We're being programmed to be more aware, more intense with vagrants around. I've personally put out a memo to employees to keep aware of what's around, to keep vehicles gassed up in case we need to transport water, people, equipment. We realize now that if the bad guys come across, they're only forty-nine miles from Havre. The community as a whole is--I don't want to use the word 'suspicious,' but they're more observant."

Most days, two or three Border Patrol vans, big white vehicles with the green agency stripes running horizontally along their midriff, pull up to the Havre station and park next to the vast nineteenth-century locomotive that sits as a museum piece just to the side of the tracks. Inside the vans green-uniformed officers sit and wait.

At 1:12 pm Amtrak's eastbound Empire Builder passenger train stops at the single-platform station. At 2:39 pm, the westbound train arrives on the same track. As the trains pull in, the crew-cut officers bound out of their vans. Some stand on the platforms, some enter the station's waiting room, others board the trains as they come to a halt. Passengers looking for better food than the dining car's mediocre fare, or just wanting to stretch their legs and snap some photos, pile off the train. For a few minutes, this tiny corner of Havre becomes a multinational, multiethnic oasis in a sea of white.

During this stop Border Patrol agents, aided by local police and sheriff's officers, as well as by Amtrak officials, routinely board trains and question riders. "They were walking along the train asking everybody if they were US citizens," recalls 23-year-old Alan Whelan, an Irishman from Waterford, who was arrested in Havre after Border Patrol agents discovered he had overstayed his tourist visa and who then spent a month being shunted among different detention centers before being deported home last winter.

They also stop people inside the waiting area. "I got off the train to make a phone call," recalls Vietnamese national Jo Jo (last name withheld), who was arrested at Havre in March 2004 while traveling east to a Cambodian friend's funeral--by train because he couldn't afford a last-minute round-trip airfare. "When I turned to get back on the train, I saw the Border Patrol. He stopped me, his body in front of the doorway, to ask me if I'm a US citizen. I said, 'Not yet.' I showed him my Washington State driver's license; he said, 'Not enough.' I showed him my Social Security card. He said, 'Not enough.' Another guy came to grab me. They told me to go back to the train to get my suitcase. They followed me. Back to my car. They handcuffed me. Put my body on the ground and cuffed me."

Jo Jo had been living in the United States for several years since fleeing Vietnam after the government began harassing him for organizing tours for Americans searching for MIAs from the Vietnam War. He'd been trying to qualify for refugee status and had an attorney working on his case. In 1998, while living in New Orleans, he'd been charged with violating the terms of his admission to the United States; that April, however, a judge had found him "nondeportable." Now, six years later, arrested by the Havre Border Patrol, Jo Jo was bused to a holding facility in Colorado, where last fall an immigration judge denied his asylum application and ordered him deported. (In a cruel twist, Jo Jo's 2005 work permit arrived in the mail the same day he was ordered deported.) He is currently appealing the ruling. If he loses, he's likely to be sent back to a country he fled ten years earlier, where he feels he would be in even greater danger than when he left.

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