United States/Canada Border
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.
“Come!” he shouts. “Come!” When I reach the customs station, he admonishes me sternly: “You could be arrested! Don’t you know?” His words are inflected with heavy French tones. “You have not checked in, and you are out of your car wandering around!” I explain that I want to photograph the marker. “You are not allowed to do that,” he replies. “You are not allowed to get out of your car!” After abruptly checking my passport, he waves me through, clearly impatient.
In the morning, I stop for gas on my way out of town. Fernando Beltran is leaning on a Vermont State Police cruiser, talking with a female trooper. He waves across the parking lot, and I go over. He tells me to go up to the very top of Shattuck Hill and take a picture of the view. “You’ll see the whole lake from there,” he says. “Man, is that bee-yootiful!”
From Shattuck Hill I see cloud shadows playing on the green hills all the way across Lake Memphremagog and into Canada. Memphremagog is a mystical 27-mile-long glacial lake, about a quarter of which lies in Vermont, the rest in Quebec. It’s 350 feet deep and harbors not only the legend of a monster named Memphre but smuggling lore galore, including caves where contraband was hidden.
The tip end of the lake is surrounded by the city of Newport, Vermont, a busy little community with a surprising number of banks. I walk down to the waterfront, with its small harbor and marina, an idyllic stretch of water that would set any sailor to longing. I look for the harbormaster. There’s a little building on the dock, with a phone on the outside wall. The sign instructs anyone who’s coming in from Quebec to call the customs agent from this phone. Inside, the office has a desk and a chair but nothing to indicate that anyone ever sits here.
A burly fellow is emptying the trash. I ask where I might find the harbormaster. “That would be me,” he says.
“Where are all the boats?” I ask.
“Well,” he replies, “these are international waters, so it gets kind of messy. The waters are patrolled.”
“So people don’t want to keep boats here?” I ask. He shrugs.
“Are there harbor tours?”
“Used to be,” he says. “But they don’t do that anymore.”