For border towns, attacks changed a way of life

Posted Sept. 09, 2011, at 2:02 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 09, 2011, at 11:48 p.m.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, changes at Maine’s border crossings were not subtle. More officers were added at ports of entry, inspectors became more vigilant and, in some cases, new ports were constructed.

Although less visible, the division of cross-border communities is one of the long-lasting impacts of the attacks and the heightened security and border restrictions that resulted.

Before 9/11, the border between Maine and Canada was more a line on a map than a barrier. Border agents from both countries often simply waved through the familiar faces they saw frequently crossing the international boundary. Residents of Aroostook County attended churches in New Brunswick. Canadians bought cheaper gas in The County. Socializing with friends and family on the other side of the border was routine.

Reports shortly after 19 hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon said some of the men had entered the U.S. through Canada. Although not true (the hijackers flew into the U.S. from Europe, Asia and the Middle East and had visas issued by the U.S. government), work to better secure the border soon was under way.

While millions of federal dollars have been spent on improving infrastructure — such as building new crossing facilities in Calais, Van Buren and Forest City — the change that has most affected Aroostook County residents is the requirement for a passport, passport card or NEXUS card, an alternative offered through U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to cross the border.

Oscar Michaud of Houlton is one of a number of border community residents who have made lifestyle changes because of the new restrictions.

“When that happened, when they made those regulations about needing passports and things, I threw in the towel,” said Michaud, who is 72. “I’m too old to fill out all that paperwork and go through the trouble and expense of getting a passport at my age. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life writing my name and date of birth a hundred times.”

Michaud has had pets, mainly dogs, for much of his life. Since he has relatives in Woodstock, New Brunswick, who have always loved to see his pets, he would combine a visit to them with a trip to a veterinarian in Woodstock.

“I loved the veterinarian I dealt with in Woodstock,” he said. “My pets loved her, too. But after they started enforcing the new travel regulations, I decided to just find one here in Aroostook County. Getting a passport is too much of a hassle for me.”

Acquiring a U.S. passport for a first-time applicant comes with a variety of fees, ranging from $55 for an adult passport card to $165 for an adult passport book and card. Renewal fees are necessary to keep the passport up to date. The process for first-time applicants also involves filling out paperwork, providing proof of citizenship and more.

‘Too many hoops’

For Jessica McIntyre of Caribou, the new passport requirements meant an end to childhood rituals.

“When I was younger, my parents took me and my siblings, along with a number of our friends, to the water slides in New Brunswick several times a summer,” said McIntyre. “My siblings and I all have birthdays in the summer, and we would look forward to birthday parties at the water slides all year.”

McIntyre has two children of her own now, and she had planned to repeat that family ritual when her children were old enough. With the new travel requirements, however, she does not believe that will happen.

“There are just too many hoops to jump through now,” she said with a wave of her hand. Passports for minors under age 16 are less expensive — $105 — but McIntyre said that it would be too much of a financial burden to acquire such documents for a family of four.

“I plan to take my kids to a water park in southern Maine when they get old enough. It will be a long way to travel, but still less of a hassle.”

Tighter border, more jobs

Jackman, nestled in the woodlands that stretch across northern Maine into Quebec, also was changed by the terrorist attacks. Some residents say the changes made since 9/11 have improved the local economy by bringing new jobs for border protection, while others say the new jobs just added another layer of surveillance to their once-peaceful existence. No one disputes that the border is more secure.

When Reggie Felker, the patrol agent in charge of the Jackman Border Patrol Station, arrived in Jackman in May 2001, there were four agents who were working from a small building no bigger than his current office. Today, 25 agents work in pairs out of an 18,000-square-foot building constructed in 2006 that includes 8,000 feet of garage space. The garage is filled with modern four-wheel-drive vehicles, a car, all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles used to access remote areas.

The nearby port of entry also has been enlarged to include three passenger lanes and two cargo lanes to help reduce wait times and processing. The port of entry staff increased from 15 officers to about 45 to handle the increased security.

“The largest change that I’ve personally seen is just the influx of families that work for the government,” Jeff Desjardins, Moose River Lumber Co.’s general manager, said recently. He said he hasn’t traveled through the border crossing much over the years but he has heard some independent and contracted truckers talk about the difficulties of coming through the port of entry.

“They’re a lot stricter [at the border] than they used to be and they check a lot more,” Joey Gilbert, a Jackman log hauler with 23 years of experience, said. “Some days they are extreme, I think, and some days it’s not too bad. It depends upon who you get [when you arrive at the port of entry]. We used to know them all by heart and that made it a lot simpler but now we don’t know any of them.”

When Gilbert was a child in Jackman, he said there were three officers, and he believes the number of agents and officers in the region now is a little extreme.

Gilles Chouimord of Quebec, who crosses into Maine three or four times a month delivering wood for construction, recalled that for the first three or four years after the attacks, there was a “pretty lengthy wait” at the port of entry. Now that all the improvements have been made, it hasn’t been too bad, he said.

Same job, new focus

“I think that before 9/11 many people didn’t know the Border Patrol existed but 9/11 emphasized the need to secure our borders,” said James Trainor, who works for the Border Patrol in Baring, located in Washington County.

As part of government agency reorganizations after 9/11, the old Border Patrol and Customs divisions and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have combined under the Department of Homeland Security to form U.S. Customs and Border Protection — an agency with a greater ability to access technology to better screen those crossing the border.

“We’ve worked hard to change the perception that we are the bad guy,” Trainor said. “We are very active in the community here. We work with the local food bank, we’ve made computer donations to local schools. We live here and we raise our families here.”

This attitude forges a closeness that allows local community members to share border enforcement issues with Customs and Border Patrol agents.

“It is widely recognized that without the public’s help, our job would be more difficult. After all, what happens here at the border doesn’t stay here at the border,” said Mark Podschline, another agent at the Baring facility. “Since 9/11, our duties didn’t change. Our focus did.”

Before 9/11, the agents were part of the Department of Justice and were housed in a two-room office above the port of entry at Ferry Point in Calais. They now have a new facility, constructed in 2006, that includes offices, training rooms, interrogation facilities and a full maintenance wing for vehicles. Between Houlton and Calais, there are 200 Customs and Border Patrol agents. Across the entire northern border of the U.S., the agents’ presence has increased by 500 percent since 9/11, Trainor said.

All the security enhancements may be beneficial, but some border-town residents still miss the days of a more fluid border. Melissa Henderson of Presque Isle said that she and her family used to travel to Canada several times a summer to pick strawberries and go camping.

“I used to love to travel through Canada,” said Henderson. “We had a camper and my dad used to love to drive to different spots. My mom would also drive us over to Woodstock every summer to pick strawberries. Now it is just a big pain in the neck. Sadly, it is easier to just stay home.”

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