TSAWWASSEN, Canada—On a sunny afternoon last month, Larry Hoff knelt down to tend to his backyard vegetable garden. But he was careful where he walked: The invisible line separating the U.S. and Canada happens to run right through his pepper plants.
“You step here, you’re in Canada,” Hoff told me, tracing the border in the air with his finger. “You step there, I’ll have to report you.”
On one stretch of the Canadian border here, across from western Washington State, the closest thing to a “big, beautiful wall” is Hoff’s lineup of carrots.
In fact, most of the Canadian border is literally just a six-inch-deep ditch running along the countryside, with no fence and definitely no wall.
Still, even without a physical barrier to contend with, locals on both sides say they wish the border was more open and easier to cross back and forth. And just because there’s no wall doesn’t mean the border is defenseless: Border patrol agents use layers of increasingly sophisticated sensors and cameras to monitor it at all times.
Hoff, 74, who’s lived in his house on the Canadian side of the border since 1971, has watched the enforcement policy change over the years. He married an American woman from Alabama, and they raised four children here. “In the old days, we’d just walk over with our kids” to the U.S., he said. But since 9/11, when border security got way more intense, “they closed it all down.”
In the old days, when he caught Canadian kids sneaking across his back yard to buy cheaper beer in the U.S., he would “give them a stern talking to.” Now, if you walk across the border, guards or a helicopter will show up within minutes.
“We do have a wall here,” Hoff said. “It’s not a physical wall. But it’s still a wall.” And the people living near it have learned to shape their lives around it.
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While immigration and border security have played a starring role in this year’s presidential campaign, most people tend to forget the Canadian border, which at 3,987 miles (excluding the separate section with Alaska) is the longest border in the world between two countries. About 300,000 people cross every day at one of the 119 ports of entry.
The United States' southern border has been closed and fenced off in sections starting as early as the 1910s, during the Mexican Revolution. But the Canadian border was for decades much more open. Before 2001, locals would casually walk back and forth without passports or IDs, and for the most part, no one minded.
Everything changed after 9/11. Worried about terrorists sneaking into the U.S. from Canada, Congress more than doubled the budget of Customs and Border Protection, the agency tasked with defending the border. The number of agents deployed on the Canadian border grew from 340 in 2001 to more than 2,237 in 2011, an increase of almost 560%, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Neighbors across the border now have to cross at an official port of entry to go visit each other, even if their houses are only a few feet apart.
On a foggy morning the other week, I drove up and down a 13-mile section of the border line with Michael Luna and Deshonn Noble, two senior border patrol agents. From the west coast inland, the terrain changes from the fairly populated area around Blaine, Wash., to brushland, and then to wide open dairy farms before climbing into the Cascade mountains.
It’s surprising how open the border seems, marked only by a series of small, silver-painted obelisks roughly every mile. In one section, Zero Avenue in Canada runs parallel to Boundary Road in the U.S., the two streets separated by just a couple feet. In most places, there aren’t even signs warning people where not to walk.
But border patrol agents make up for the lack of a physical barrier with technology. There are cameras on tall metal poles, hidden in trees, and nestled into the ground. There are seismic monitors, heat monitors, and microphones. Above, drones and helicopters stare down. One guy sitting in a room in the headquarters in Blaine can watch a huge swath of the border and coordinate with Canadian officials the moment he sees something suspicious.
Over the years, some politicians have suggested building a wall along the entire northern border, but Noble and Luna say it isn’t necessary. “A wall isn’t the solution,” Noble said. “I don’t think there’s one solution… it’s going to be a combination of everything, technology and manpower and infrastructure.”
Luna and Noble have been working in the Blaine sector of the border for years, and each had earlier assignments on the Mexican border. While their jobs are a little quieter up here, they said their team still catches people trying to cross illegally every few days. Across the entire northern border in 2014, officers caught 3,338 people trying to enter the U.S. illegally, compared to 479,371 apprehensions on the southern border, according to Border Patrol statistics.
Their strategy is based on the idea of risk management. Areas that are “riskier”—more likely to attract illegal crossings—receive more intense scrutiny. One 50-yard stretch, for example, is completely open and abuts a busy housing project on the American side. To a casual observer, it might seem easy to just walk across and blend in. “Their goal is hopefully nobody is paying attention,” Luna said. But someone is always paying attention. Every so often, his radio crackled with an agent reporting something suspicious, and asking a certain camera to zero in on a location.
Unlike the southern border, where a large majority of undocumented crossings go from Mexico to the U.S., the flow is bidirectional up here. Lately, Luna said, they’ve seen more and more people with visitor visas from the Middle East trying to cross into Canada, perhaps hoping to have a better chance at getting asylum there than in the U.S.
There’s also a problem with drug smuggling. In 2005, agents arrested three Canadians and two Americans for constructing a 350-foot tunnel under the border near Lynden, WA, to smuggle marijuana. Officials filled the tunnel with concrete. Since Washington State legalized recreational marijuana, there’s been a huge drop in pot smuggling, but the agents say there is still a substantial flow of MDMA (ecstasy) and other drugs into the U.S.
And then there are those who cross accidentally. Earlier this summer, two teenagers accidentally walked across the border from Alberta to Montana while playing Pokémon Go. They were stopped by the Border Patrol and returned to their parents. “That’s a good excuse,” Luna acknowledged with a chuckle.
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Old-timers in the area remember things being much more relaxed. Before 9/11, neighbors didn’t let an international border stop them from connecting with folks on the other side.
A symbol of that was Metcalfe’s Cafe, which was built on the Canadian side, right on the border line in Tsawwassen. For years, it served piping hot fish and chips out of a takeout window to the American side.
June Morin, 74, got a summer job at the cafe as a teenager and ended up marrying the owner’s son. “They had the best fish and chips in the world,” Morin remembered. “My husband, when he was younger, used to skin the fish, he would hand-cut them, and my father-in-law would fry them.” They would go for evening walks up the waterfront, not worrying about whether they were in Canada or the U.S.
The cafe was converted into a squash club in the '70s and sold to a private investor a few years ago. It was demolished last month and is now an empty field of dirt.
Canadian Arthur Beresford, whose house is also right on the line, said that sometime before 9/11, his dog jumped over his backyard fence and into the U.S. He was able to go and retrieve the undocumented canine without getting in trouble. Now, Beresford thinks the border guards are totally different. “They’re not very friendly,” he said. “You get the impression that you’re not welcome.”
Luna, the U.S. border patrol agent, said he’s sympathetic to complaints from locals, but that a secure border is necessary to prevent terrorists from entering the country. “We have to adapt to the threats,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s the way we have to live now.”
Canadians are especially annoyed about U.S. policy that has banned their citizens from entering the U.S. for infractions as small as admitting to have smoked marijuana in the past. When Canadian Ted Gilliat was asked by American border agents in August whether he had ever smoked pot, he answered truthfully that he had. After all, marijuana is legal in Washington State, and laws against it are rarely enforced in Canada. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has admitted to smoking marijuana as a member of Parliament, is expected to legalize it nationwide next year.)
But because marijuana is still against federal law, Gilliat's admission that he had smoked it in the past resulted in him being banned for life from entering the U.S. without receiving an expensive, temporary waiver from the federal government. And he’s not the only one—Len Saunders, an immigration attorney in Blaine, said he’s handled more than 30 cases where Canadians got lifetime bans just for admitting they’ve smoked pot. “The law is the law, there’s no grey area,” he told me in his small, bustling office. “It’s silly, no one benefits from it.”
The Canadian government has lodged protests over the policy, with the country’s public safety minister calling it a "ludicrous situation." Jason Givens, a CBP spokesperson, noted that federal law supersedes Washington State law. “Under existing U.S. federal law, an individual [who is] convicted of or admits having committed certain crimes or violations of laws relating to a controlled substance can be found inadmissible to enter the United States,” he said.
While the border is a hassle for most, others find business opportunities in living nearby. Bob Boule, who grew up in the area, owns Smuggler’s Inn, a sprawling bed and breakfast that’s only a few yards from the border. He gives his guests night-vision goggles so they can watch "smugglers" from their rooms, and claims that every guest who’s stayed up all night has seen someone crossing—except that ”98% of what they saw are border patrol agents,” he told me.
In past years, up to 60 people have been arrested crossing the border across his own yard, he said. In 2012, one of his guests was arrested carrying 24 pounds of cocaine in her suitcase. Other times, a guest simply disappears after dark. He’ll get calls in the middle of the night from the border patrol asking him if someone they arrested crossing the border was staying at his inn.
Boule—who drives guests around in a black SUV with the license plate SMUGLER—doesn’t seem to mind the brush with the law. He posts news articles about the arrests on the inn’s website, lending it a kind of rakish charm.
But even Boule, whose business is based on the intrigue of the border, wishes it was more open. He thinks the U.S. and Canada should just get rid of border enforcement and move to a European Union-style border, allowing people and goods to move easily across. “They could eliminate quite a few billion dollars and use it on education and just have an open border,” he suggested.
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I f the border is both a headache and an opportunity, that dynamic is especially so in Point Roberts, a five-square-mile slice of America that’s completely cut off from the rest of the country by the border. It’s on a peninsula that hangs just below the 49th parallel, the latitudinal line that divides Canada and the U.S. across the west. Locals have to cross two international borders in order to get to the rest of Washington State, unless they take a boat or plane.
It’s a gorgeous area, with a lovely coastline and wide open views. The other day Rod Keys, 73, was sitting at the town’s seawall enjoying a book, a breeze coming off the water. In the distance to the north, the skyscrapers of Vancouver glinted in the sun, and to the east, the snow-covered peak of Mount Baker drifted hazily into view.
Keys has to drive two hours and cross two borders when he visits his vacation house here from his home in Oak Harbor, Wash. But he says it’s worth it. “You feel pretty calm here,” he said. “When you cross over, you just—” he exhaled peacefully. “It feels totally different.”
The change isn’t just translating Canadian dollars into U.S. dollars and kilometers into miles. While Tsawwassen, to the north, could easily fit into typical suburbia in either country, Point Roberts is an oasis of wooded calm bathed in a sea breeze.
Its unique border status provides some benefits. Hundreds of Canadians come across every day to buy cheaper goods like alcohol, cheese, and especially gas. Probably its biggest industry is package centers: Amazon typically charges higher shipping fees to Canada but not to Washington State, so many Canadians living nearby have their packages sent to Point Roberts and drive down to pick them up. The town is also a popular destination for people in the federal witness protection program, because it’s much harder for those with criminal records to get here.
Sandra Procter runs Brewster’s, a homey eatery that is one of the only restaurants in town to stay open all year round. It’s the kind of place where the waiters are on first-name basis with most of the customers. “We would starve to death if this place wasn’t here,” an older woman told me as she picked up a bottle of wine and two substantial slices of chocolate cake.
Procter said she likes the peace and quiet, even though she has to cross the border every day to take her son to school. (The one school in town only goes to grade three, so older students must go to Canada or take a long bus ride across two borders to get to the rest of Washington State.)
“Most Americans don’t know we’re here,” Procter said as she served up a plate of crab cakes. “We’re kind of forgotten about, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing.” She likes that her son can ride his bike everywhere and she never has to worry about his safety. “This is a Norman Rockwell painting,” she said.
But for many, the border is a serious inconvenience. Locals dread being “pulled in” for a secondary screening while crossing, forced to get out of their car while their papers are examined, dogs sniff around their vehicle, and their possessions are rifled through.
Anthony Cooper, 23, who’s lived in Point Roberts his entire life, had just been pulled in the afternoon I met him and said he was fed up with it. “The longer I’ve lived here, the less I want to live here,” he said. “You’re under constant scrutiny when you go back and forth.” One time, he remembered, border agents ordered everyone off his schoolbus at the border because one girl had marijuana.
It’s an even bigger deal for Scott Carlson, 35. He is unable to cross the Canadian border due to Canada’s strict policy barring people with DUI convictions. Because he pled guilty to a misdemeanor DUI nine years ago, Carlson can’t cross the border. “I’m literally stuck here,” he said. “I’ve walked every square inch of this place, the whole 4.9 miles.”
He can still get to the mainland U.S. by taking a twice-a-week flight on a tiny plane from Point Roberts to Bellingham, WA. But it’s pretty expensive, so he rarely leaves. He’s trying to get a waiver from Canada or a pardon that would remove the conviction from his record.
Until then, Carlson has come to terms with being trapped behind the invisible line. Luckily for him, he likes living in Point Roberts. “It’s beautiful and lush, it’s tight-knit, everyone knows each other,” he said. “Minus the confinement, it’s pretty good.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.