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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."

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.

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.

Or consider the story of Iraqi refugee Abdul Ameer Yousef Habeeb. On April 1, 2003, a few weeks after the start of military operations in the Gulf, Habeeb got off the Empire Builder in Havre to buy a soft drink in the station's waiting room. He was en route from Seattle, where he worked in a furniture warehouse, to Chicago and then on to Washington, where he says he'd been promised a job on a start-up Arabic-language newspaper.

Habeeb's brother had been killed by Saddam Hussein's security forces, his father had died in a suspicious car crash and Habeeb himself had been repeatedly tortured for what he understatedly terms "political problems" with the government. He had fled to Syria, been granted refugee status by the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Athens, been issued a letter from the US Embassy in Damascus confirming his refugee status and in July 2002, through the Los Angeles airport, had been admitted to the United States as a refugee. From start to finish, the process had been well documented. Now, traveling within his new country, Habeeb wanted to put the past behind him.

"I see one guy in a uniform," Habeeb recalled almost two years later. "He looked to me for a minute, and that makes me worry. I tried to go back to the train. And when I tried, he followed me and stopped between me and the train. He ask me, 'Where are you from?' I said, 'I'm from Iraq.' He ask me how I get to America and what I'm doing here. I told him I'm a political refugee and the American government brought me here. I show him my documents, and he asks me many, many questions. Another guy in a uniform come and ask me questions. He ask me if I did the registration. I was really scared, and when I asked him what does 'the registration' mean, he said you have to go to office in Seattle to give fingerprints and photo."

The registration the Border Patrol agents were referring to is a "special registration" program enacted post-9/11 that mandates that immigrants from a list of countries, mainly in the Middle East, register on a regular basis with immigration authorities. The program, however, specifically excludes refugees. But Habeeb's papers were confiscated, he was arrested and questioned over several hours by Border Patrol and FBI agents. Habeeb had suddenly become Case No. HVR0304000003 A079 854 029. He claims he was put into a small room with cameras and a microphone, that he was asked whether he had friends from Saudi Arabia and whether he knew anyone who talked about America in a critical way. There was, he says, a small cage in the room, which he feared he would be put into, and on the wall, Habeeb claims, was a photograph of a bearded man tied to a chair with a rag around his eyes. Whether these allegations are true is impossible to confirm, since the Border Patrol refused to comment on the case.

Late that night the Iraqi was transferred to the county jail, where he spent three days being verbally tormented by inmates who sneeringly called him "Saddam."

From northern Montana Habeeb was flown to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Seattle, where he underwent more questioning. Brought before an immigration judge, with no attorney representing him, the refugee was again told--erroneously--that he had broken the law by not registering and that he would be deported.

Luckily for Habeeb, a local watchdog organization monitoring the ICE facility found out about his case, and several days later, with the help of immigration attorneys at the Seattle firm of MacDonald, Hoague and Bayless, Habeeb was released. More than a month after that, on May 16, the deportation case was dismissed. In the interim, however, Habeeb lost his new job; and, he says, he became a pariah, with acquaintances reluctant to associate with someone the government apparently believed to be a possible terrorist.

This past March 17, ACLU attorneys working on behalf of Habeeb announced that they were suing two Border Patrol agents in Montana for unspecified damages. A related federal tort claim filed against the Border Patrol agency itself, as well as ICE, seeks $600,000 in compensation for Habeeb's being wrongly arrested, incarcerated and threatened with deportation.

Whether the Havre sector agents are questioning everyone at the station, profiling people who simply look "different," as Habeeb's and Jo Jo's cases suggest, or are working from Amtrak passenger manifests--many immigration attorneys believe that after the Patriot Act was passed, Border Patrol agents began accessing these manifests--is unclear, because neither Border Patrol officials nor Amtrak would comment on the matter. What is clear, however, is that the expansion of Havre's Border Patrol office has resulted in a significant rise in the numbers of illegal aliens being arrested in town, held in the Hill County Detention Center and then entered into ICE's labyrinthine, often Kafkaesque, detention system. "There's more individuals arrested by the Border Patrol, more inmates for the detention facility," acknowledges Sheriff Greg Szudera, who runs the county jail. The jail's daily logs bear witness to this steady flow of "illegals." In the four months from October 1, 2004, through January 31, 2005, fifty-five Border Patrol detainees were booked into the detention center.

During these months the majority of those arrested were Latino; names like Castellanos, Vicente, Rodriguez and Garcia dot this roster. There were also Indian, Bangladeshi, Irish and Italian names and, among them, a handful of Arabic ones: an Ahmed in December, a Mohamed in January. Were any of these detainees security threats? That was something the Border Patrol wasn't prepared to comment on. David Bernard, the assistant chief of the Havre sector office, working out of a headquarters building on a hill next to the town's ice dome, was happy to tell me about his move from Laredo, Texas, to Havre; but he wouldn't tell me how many arrests his agents had made, what criteria they used in determining whom to ask for ID and paperwork or what legal justifications they relied on for stopping people at random inside the train station and questioning them about their citizenship status.

If the Empire Builder's riders answer that they are not US citizens, the federal agents, working under Department of Homeland Security mandates, demand proof that they are in the country legally. Most of those they interrogate are too intimidated to ask by what right they are being questioned. Were they to do so, the agents could recite to them a list of Supreme Court rulings dealing with cases from the Southwest that have, in recent years, expanded the right of law-enforcement officers to demand that people produce ID upon being stopped, and have limited the "probable cause" requirements for searching and interrogating a person within a certain number of miles of an international border.

Intercepted foreigners who cannot produce the needed visas and residency documents--and even some, like Habeeb, who can--are handcuffed, arrested and taken to the Hill County jail. They are allowed to contact attorneys, but many apparently are so confused that they do not. When enough "illegals" have been netted to warrant a transport south, they're collected by the Border Patrol, shackled and bused or flown first to a processing center in Idaho and then, in a procedural change instituted months after Habeeb's arrest, on to a 340-bed detention facility in Aurora, a suburb of Denver, run on behalf of ICE by the private company GEO Group.

One of the consequences of this journey to Aurora is that the detainees are removed from Montana, which falls under the jurisdiction of the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, to Colorado, which is within the boundaries of the far more conservative Tenth Circuit. Whereas the Ninth Circuit judges are often sympathetic to those claiming refugee status or asylum and more reluctant to deport noncitizens who have been convicted of low-level crimes, the Tenth Circuit, according to attorneys like Regina Germain, author of a book on asylum law and onetime attorney with the UN High Commission for Refugees, shows no such circumspection. "A low-level crime doesn't qualify as a 'drug trafficking offense' in the Ninth Circuit but does in the Tenth Circuit," says Germain. "If your hearing is in the Ninth Circuit, you'll stay in the country. If it's in the Tenth Circuit, you'll be deported."

Some of those arrested and bundled off to Colorado have been in the process of applying for asylum or for refugee status. "It seems like, in the summer, I was getting calls a couple times a week," says Montana immigration attorney Debbie Smith, of the firm Reynolds, Motl and Sherwood. One of the women who contacted Smith was from El Salvador; she had fled her abusive husband and managed to get to Portland, Oregon. From there, she was trying to take the train to visit her sister in New Jersey. Instead, she was arrested in Havre and ended up in the immigration detention system.

At the other end of the bus ride from Havre to the detention facility in Colorado, Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network attorneys recall having had about fifteen clients in 2004 who had been plucked off the train at Havre. These men and women, the attorneys say, were from countries ranging from Uganda and Gambia to Nicaragua and Israel.

The routinization of checks like those now conducted at the Havre train station, and the culture of suspicion cultivated in such towns, are creating the psychological conditions and responses of a population under a national identity card system. A zone is being locked in place on the outer perimeter of the United States (within about 100 miles of a border) where people can be stopped, required to present ID and submit to intensive questioning without probable cause that they have committed a crime. Inside this inner border, the Constitution is no longer fully operable. With no evidence that would-be terrorists are being caught in this net, the question becomes whether the "benefit" of catching a few visa overstays or illegal migrant workers offsets the cost to civil liberties of having federal officers demanding identity papers of all and sundry miles from an international border and, in the process, shredding the Constitution's protections against illegal search and seizure.

"It has disturbing implications," says immigration law specialist Dan Kowalski of Austin, Texas. "What I've been watching with some dismay is our slow slide into a national identity system, while all the time saying we don't have one and aren't going to have one. The hydraulic pressure of 9/11 means there will be Congressional pressure toward a national ID."

As for Abdul Habeeb, two years on he is still trying to pick up the pieces of his life. "When I looked to the Statue of Liberty pictures in Iraq, I thought the freedom and democracy in this country was number-one around the world--and that nobody can stop anybody if he's done nothing wrong. I thought I'd be, in America, secure. Now, every night I fear somebody coming. Always, really, I'm scared."

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