FORKS, Wash. — The Olympic Peninsula has always felt more like the edge of the world than a mere national boundary.
Its ocean shoreline, the northwesternmost coast of the contiguous United States, is accessible by a single road, U.S. Highway 101, and it has long been traveled by a distinctive fleet: loud logging trucks rumbling out of the dark and wet woods, rusty pickups with windows pronouncing “Native Pride,” stray Subarus hauling surfboards and kayaks to the cold Pacific.
Then the U.S. Border Patrol vehicles started showing up.
Sometimes they respond unexpectedly to assist with mundane traffic stops conducted by the local police. Sometimes they hover outside the warehouse where Mexican immigrants sell the salal they pick in the temperate rain forest. Sometimes they confront people whose primary offense, many argue, is skin tone.
Those kinds of scenes might be common in towns that border Mexico in Texas, Arizona or California. But the border here is with Canada, which is separated from the peninsula by the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
“What's the purpose of the Border Patrol in a place that has no border problems?” asked Art Argyropoulos, who is from Greece and runs a restaurant on the peninsula with his wife, who is from Mexico.
Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the federal government has kept a more careful watch on the country's northern border. Here on this remote peninsula over the past six years, the number of Border Patrol agents has risen tenfold, from four in 2006 to about 40. This month, the agency is completing construction of a $10 million office in Port Angeles, a city of 19,000. The one-story building, surrounded by a spiked security fence, can house as many as 50 officers.
The Border Patrol says its priority is to address potential terrorism and smuggling threats from Canada (a ferry runs between Port Angeles and Victoria, British Columbia), but many people say the peninsula has instead become an unlikely new frontier in the effort to fight illegal immigration from Latin America.
“Everybody's scared,” said Benigno Hernandez, 38, who has lived in Forks, population 3,500, for more than a decade. “Everybody's leaving.”
In Forks, several hundred immigrants had long found winter work picking salal, a wild shrub whose branches are used in floral arrangements around the world. But now, schools are losing enrollment because students' parents have been deported. Mobile home parks are half empty. At Thriftway, the main grocery store in the town, the weekend rush has slowed because the salal pickers who used to shop after getting paid on Saturdays have disappeared, sometimes because they were detained, sometimes because they were afraid.
“It's happened very much in the past couple of months,” Forks Mayor Byron Monohon said. “I think the Border Patrol has just put a lot of pressure on the situation.”
Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed a class-action suit against the Border Patrol, claiming that its officers were illegally stopping and interrogating people on the basis of racial profiling. This month, the Rights Project filed another suit, alleging that Border Patrol agents sometimes asked to support other law enforcement as interpreters — Border Patrol agents are required to know Spanish — while intending instead to investigate for immigration violations.
In the class-action suit, the three named plaintiffs are all minority members who said they were stopped and questioned without cause: Two were corrections officers, one was the student-body president of Forks High School, whose parents were born in Mexico. The student, Ismael Ramos-Contreras, who will be a freshman at Western Washington University in the fall, said the Border Patrol's presence has become unnerving but also a source of dark humor, including when the school soccer team travels to away games.
“If we see Border Patrol, it's like, 'Everybody hide!'” he said. “The majority of the soccer team is Hispanic.”
The Border Patrol would not comment on the lawsuits and said it prohibited profiling based on race or religion.
“What they're focused on up there are the same things that we're focused on around the country,” said Ronald D. Vitiello, the deputy chief of the Border Patrol. “That's, you know, the threat of terrorism, the criminal organizations that use the border for their own gain and being prepared to combat those threats, eliminate the vulnerabilities that we know about and mitigate the risk where we can.”
Officials sometimes cite the 1999 arrest of Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who became known as the “millennium bomber” for his plan to detonate explosives at Los Angeles International Airport. Ressam was convicted after he tried to enter the United States at Port Angeles with bomb components.
In the six years since the Border Patrol began expanding its presence on the peninsula, the number of apprehensions has declined by 27 percent — from 811 in 2006 to 591 in 2011 — in the agency's Blaine sector, which includes Western Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Border Patrol officials have said the decline is a success that validates their presence.
Last year, however, a Border Patrol agent based in Port Angeles testified before Congress that he and other agents there considered it a “black hole” with “no purpose, no mission.” The agent, Christian Sanchez, said his supervisors told him “to just drive” around the peninsula during his shift.
Critics speculate that boredom, and a need to justify their presence, has prompted agents to get involved with law enforcement beyond their usual duties. In some cases, their help has been welcomed. The U.S. Forest Service, responsible for law enforcement on the peninsula's 600,000 acres of national forest, has just three agents, and one of the positions is vacant.
“They're a resource, and we're few and far between,” said Kim Kinville, the patrol captain for the Forest Service on the peninsula.
Forest Service agents will sometimes request help from Border Patrol for interpreting, she said, and the encounters can lead to detentions of illegal immigrants.
In May 2011, a Forest Service officer stopped a Mexican couple picking salal on forest land without a permit. A Border Patrol agent soon arrived, prompting the Mexican man to flee into the forest while, according to his girlfriend, the Forest Service officer held her by her hair. The Mexican man, Benjamin Roldan Salinas, was found three weeks later, drowned in the Sol Duc River.
Like most pickers in the area, Salinas sold his salal to Hop Dhooghe, 72, who runs Olympic Evergreens. Dhooghe, whose parents immigrated from Belgium and Germany, said his business was about a fourth of what it was a few years ago because many good salal pickers have left the peninsula. In response to the Border Patrol's actions, Dhooghe has joined the new Forks Human Rights Group.
“I've lived all my life out here and never seen anything like this,” Dhooghe said.
“Why don't they do it to the white people, to see if they're from Canada or something?” he said of the Border Patrol confrontations. “They just do it by skin color. If they did that to the white people, there'd really be an uproar.”