Report from the northern front: Northwest Border Patrol checkpoints stir uproar

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The clamor started in June. A ferry worker supported by his union, the Inland Boatmen’s Union, blew the whistle on immigration agents who tried to enlist workers to spy on passengers in Washington state.

Two months later, the Border Patrol, aided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), set up checkpoints on the Olympia Peninsula. The peninsula is an expansive rural area that makes up Washington’s northwest corner. Agents stopped every car at three different sites on Highway 101.

Then officials picked up 19-year-old Edgar Ayala, an undocumented immigrant who had been living in the area since infancy, and quickly deported him to Mexico. Ayala had just graduated with honors from Forks High School, where he was a wrestling star.

His classmates organized a protest in Forks, a town of 3,200 near the coast, with the help of Hoh tribal member Tonya Ward and Iranian immigrant teacher Layla Iranshad. Ninety people rallied. Picket signs declared, “Edgar lost his chance,” “Feds out of Forks,” and “Hard-working people are not terrorists!”

Meanwhile, residents on the peninsula’s eastern side were also fuming about violations of their civil liberties. In addition to the checkpoints, ICE agents were demanding papers from workers in Mexican, Chinese, and East Indian restaurants in Port Angeles, the area’s largest town.

Community erupts in protest. Port Angeles Radical Women, which this writer represents, called a meeting in the town library. People came from all over the peninsula and beyond. They formed the Stop the Checkpoints Committee, based on four issues: defend civil liberties; no to racial profiling, raids and detentions; defend immigrant workers and their families; no police state on the Olympic Peninsula.

Within two weeks, the committee kicked off its campaign with a rally and march of nearly 200 people on Sept. 20. Coordinating the protest brought together for the first time ever residents from several of the peninsula’s towns and two of its tribes. Among them were retirees, teachers, young families, restaurant workers, tribal elders, and students. Some had never marched before and some were seasoned activists with groups including the Green Party, Socialist Party, and Democratic Party.

Rally participants were clearly united on the goal of stopping the checkpoints, and loudly cheered those who spoke at the open microphone. The mutual support among the marchers and with drivers honking as they passed by gave everyone strength. It showed that working people from different political organizations, towns, and backgrounds can unite and be heard.

Extensive media coverage sparked a flood of emails and calls from folks who asked to be added to the committee’s email list and suggested ideas for future actions. Letters to the editor flowed in. A retired hotel worker of Port Angeles wrote, “These checkpoints are a threat to our personal freedoms and don’t belong in the America that I love.” Media clips were posted on the Internet and blogs were alive with online comments even a month after the rally.

Next the committee protested outside a candidate forum and questioned Rep. Norm Dicks, who is on the congressional Homeland Security committee. An audience member told him the checkpoints are “creating fear and ripping families apart.” Another called it the “beginnings of a police state.” In response to public pressure, Dicks told the Border Patrol to “not be so gruff with people.” And, at least for now, drivers are reporting fewer cases of being stopped.

Similar checkpoints are being tried out in other rural areas along the northern border. In Hartford, Vermont, the community was able to stop the building of a permanent checkpoint station some 90 miles from Canada. Border Patrol claims it has authority over 100 miles inside the borders. This area includes two-thirds of the U.S. population. ACLU rightly calls it a “Constitution-Free Zone!”

The issue is now squarely in the public eye on the peninsula. Border Patrol had to set up speaking gigs trying to defend its activities. Local newspapers are doing investigative reporting and running articles on the negative effects of the roadblocks.

The mayor of Port Townsend called a meeting where an overflow crowd of 350 grilled the Border Patrol, city police chief, county sheriff, and ACLU about the constitutionality of these interior “border” checkpoints. The Stop the Checkpoints Committee sponsored a public forum, “Know Your Rights — Before You’re Stopped,” where ACLU speakers explained relevant laws and court challenges to the checkpoints.

If questioned by ICE or Border Patrol inside the borders, you can refuse to cooperate. You don’t have to answer questions without an attorney. The harder we make it for government agents to violate the Constitution, the quicker we’ll get rid of these Nazi-like tactics.

You can make a difference! Senator Maria Cantwell and Rep. Adam Smith of Washington have introduced federal legislation to overturn new rules allowing the Border Patrol to search laptops, cameras and cell phones. People can support this effort via the “Take Action” link at www.aclu-wa.org.

The Stop the Checkpoints Committee now plans to launch a petition drive to put pressure on local governments to pass ordinances that bar city police from questioning people about their immigration status. This is already law in cities including New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.

No matter who you are or where you are — big city or rural town — speak out! You will find others who agree and together you can take action.

As committee member Susan Dorazio put it, “The human spirit and the desire for freedom and justice remain strong. … By expressing solidarity with immigrant workers and standing up to agencies that would turn our area into a police state, people are finding the energy and resources to fight for their own rights.”

Lois Danks is coordinator of the Stop the Checkpoints Committee. To get involved or for more information, contact her at RWportang@yahoo.com or 360-452-7534.

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