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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Border Patrol grows and so do concerns

Shortly after riding a U.S. Border Patrol dune buggy in Arizona's high desert 2½ years ago, President George W. Bush initiated a beefed-up border-security policy that some say has infringed on civil liberties -- and led to crackdowns around Port Angeles and Bellingham.

"We want our borders shut to illegal immigrants, as well as criminals and drug dealers and terrorists," declared Bush, who ordered the Border Patrol to hire 6,000 more agents by the end of this year.

In Blaine, at the U.S.-Canada border, the Border Patrol has nearly quadrupled in size -- from about 50 agents eight years ago to about 190 today. It's using its wealth of manpower to throw up roadblocks on highways and search buses dozens of miles from the nearest border.

They're searching for terrorists, drug dealers and illegal immigrants, a mission the Border Patrol says it has the right to do within 100 miles of the border. In Western Washington, that means roadblocks could be set up at least as far south as Seattle.

Agents make daily checks on the Olympic Peninsula of an intercity bus line at its Discovery Bay stop, said Mike Bermudez, a supervisory agent and spokesman.

"The agents ask everyone on the bus what their citizenship is," he said. "No one on the bus but the driver can escape that question."

The owner of the bus line has no problem with the patrol boarding his buses.

"They're very good at what they do," said Olympic Bus Lines President Jack Heckman, who hasn't heard any complaints. "They come on the bus, announce who they are. It does not delay us at all."

The patrol had been questioning bus passengers sporadically for years, Heckman said, but now "it's at least a weekly occurrence."

It's unclear how effective the tactic is at stopping terrorists. The patrol refuses to release any information about such arrests or investigations, citing national security considerations.

Eight undocumented people have been arrested as a result of bus boardings on the Olympic Peninsula since fall 2007, Bermudez said. In Bellingham, 13 people have been arrested in bus and train boardings during the same period.

Roadblocks, which the patrol calls "tactical traffic checkpoints," have garnered more arrests. [Mark Godsey]

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