United States/Canada Border
East of Derby Line, the town of Holland, Vermont (population 588), is a wide plain of farms and fields, stretching as far as I can see. I ask the town clerk, Diane Judd, whether there’s a crossing in Holland.
“Well, no legal crossing,” she replies. “But we have plenty of activity. There was an arrest just last week, and in the winter people cross on snowmobiles.”
As in many towns of the Northeast Kingdom, most of the roads are dirt. I drive down one road and come to a farm on a high rise, with open fields all around and a view of the town center and the hills beyond. I get out and walk over to the old farmhouse, which seems to have been partially renovated. It looks abandoned. Still, the lawn has been neatly trimmed, and the fields are freshly mown. Behind the house is the telltale obelisk–the boundary marker. A grassy road disappears into the woods, blocked by a big gate that sports a stop sign and warnings not to proceed any farther: the end of America.
Back down the road, I stop at a house where a woman is sweeping her front steps. I ask whether the farm at the end of the road is for sale. “I don’t know who owns that house,” she says. “I’ve lived here 11 years and I’ve never seen him.”
The next day, I visit Fernando Beltran, Patrol Agent in Charge at the Newport border station, about 7 miles from Holland. Beltran watches over 32 miles of the 90-mile Vermont boundary. Almost every border patrol agent I’ll speak with will feel the need to differentiate himself from the customs agents who check people at ports of entry. “There’s port entry and then there’s everything in between,” Beltran tells me. “It’s everything in between that we take care of.” That includes places like the abandoned farm I saw in Holland. “We have sensors,” he explains. “We know you’re there.”
Dressed in what looks like military fatigues, Beltran is charming, welcoming, easy to talk to. His speech is tinged with a slight Latino accent. But he doesn’t want to talk much about his work; he says he can’t reveal where or how agents operate or how many of them there are. Instead he talks about himself. The son of migrant workers, he grew up on farms across the country. “I started working in the fields with my parents when I was 7,” he says. “I was born in Oregon. We were there picking pears. We went where the work was–Minnesota, wherever.”
I express surprise that someone with such a background would join the Border Patrol. “My story isn’t unique,” he says. “There are a lot of agents who were migrant workers. My first relations with the Border Patrol, as a kid … We’d be out there in the field and you’d see an airplane coming and then you’d see cars coming.”
Because all agents are required to serve five years on the southern boundary before they transfer north, I meet many agents like Beltran who have come to Vermont from the U.S./Mexican border. He tells me that where he was stationed in Texas, 600 agents patrolled the one town. “It’s a lot busier down there,” he explain. “On the southern border, at dusk, you just see these people coming toward the fences, and when you see them, you know they’re just waiting for darkness, when we can’t see them anymore. It’s different here, for sure, but the bottom line is that our job up here is hard, and it’s not any less dangerous. We can’t be wrong once.”
I mention the feeling of annoyance among some Vermonters who aren’t used to being interrogated so closely. “A man brought me an issue of Vermont Life from 1964,” Beltran recalls. “It had an article about the border and how easy it was, that no one cared if you crossed.And I said, ‘Yeah, that was Mayberry. We’ve had things happen in this world now. We’ll never see Mayberry again.’”
That evening, I cross into Quebec for dinner in Stanstead, Derby Line’s Canadian counterpart. As I drive across the border, I notice that someone has planted a beautiful flower garden in a circle around the international marker. I pull over and get out to take a photograph. When I turn around, I see a Canadian customs agent gesturing furiously at me.