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On the Canadian side, Kathy Prue bent to greet Paulina Carpenter, 5, for story time at The Haskell Free Library and Opera House.
On the Canadian side, Kathy Prue bent to greet Paulina Carpenter, 5, for story time at The Haskell Free Library and Opera House. (Caleb Kenna for the Boston Globe)

A quiet imperiled on Vt.-Canada line

Library at center of border battle

DERBY LINE, Vt. -- Residents of this town and neighboring Stanstead, Quebec, are proud of the elegant granite hall that straddles the border between them. It is their rarest jewel: The Haskell Free Library and Opera House, built a century ago as a symbol of friendship between the United States and Canada and shared ever since by citizens of the two countries.

Canadians and Americans borrow books and watch plays side by side at the library, which was deliberately built half in one country and half in the other. No guards are stationed on the quiet, shady streets around the building, and Canadians who cross into Vermont to enter the library do not need to show their passports at a border station, as they do when crossing for any other purpose. Inside the library, where a strip of black tape on the floor marks the international boundary, patrons wander unchecked between the two countries on their way from the stacks to the birch-paneled reading room.

But smugglers of illegal immigrants have begun to notice the unique features of the neighborhood, say agents from both countries who enforce the border in the area, located less than a minute's drive from Interstate 91.

Smugglers are taking advantage of three unguarded side streets near the library to ferry human cargo in both directions, border officials say. The streets must be closed to traffic, officials insist, to help them stem a rising tide of illegal immigration.

The plan has provoked an emotional outcry in these two small border towns, where people pride themselves on their easy coexistence. Their countries may be preoccupied with terrorism and the need for tighter borders, but here, many residents say the change would break down their most valued traditions.

"I grew up with the longest free and open border in the world, and now that's changing, and that's a terrible thing, that fear is being inflicted upon us," said Ben Kramer , a Canadian from Stanstead who lives on one of the streets that would be closed, at a meeting held last week to discuss the proposal. "Sometimes democracy has to stand up and show that we don't barricade ourselves in or succumb to paranoia."

Border officials from Canada and the United States said their push to close the streets is based on facts, not groundless fears. So far this year, agents have caught 32 smugglers or people being smuggled after they crossed the border illegally on Maple, Lee, and Church streets near the library, according to statistics presented at the meeting by leaders of the Integrated Border Enforcement Team, the joint US-Canadian patrol force for the region. Last year, 44 were apprehended. In 2005, 27 were caught. Cameras and motion detectors aid enforcement on the three streets. No one knows how much smuggling goes undetected.

In one incident a year ago this week, Border Patrol agents pulled over the drivers of two vans after they crossed into the United States on Church Street next to the library and headed south on Interstate 91 without reporting to the port of entry. In the vans, the agents discovered 21 illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Mexico, and Guyana. The drivers were two New York men who were later sentenced to prison time and probation.

"We talk to these people and ask them why they choose to come here, and the answer is always the same -- because they could cross here," said Greg Bishop , a burly corporal with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who leads the joint border team.

Standing on the opera house stage, under plaster cherubs and voluptuous painted nudes, Bishop pleaded with about 100 residents of the two towns at the three-hour meeting Tuesday, switching back and forth from French to English.

"These are the facts," he said, as the numbers of illegal border crossings flashed onscreen and a murmur swept through the crowd. "We would be remiss in our duties if we simply watched it happen and did nothing about it."

Border officials said the decision rests with local leaders and will not be imposed by federal agencies. They asked the two towns to form a committee to discuss the proposal and other possible solutions.

Officials assured residents that if the streets were closed, pedestrians could still pass freely to and from the library, without checking in at the port of entry. They showed photographs of attractive flowerpots that could serve as barriers. Still, most people at the meeting were unconvinced. Some bristled with anger.

"Where does it end? How much security is going to be enough?" demanded Derby Line resident Dennis Kelley , who lives on Main Street 70 feet from the border .

"We think citizens deserve the best security the government can provide," replied Rosendo Hinojosa , deputy chief patrol agent for US Customs and Border Patrol.

"Then why not put up a wall with razor wire?" Kelley prodded. "If we agree to street closings, what is the next item on the agenda?"

Inside the busy library, which sits beside the rushing falls of the Tomifobia River, patrons passed in and out bearing armfuls of books last week; no one glanced down at the line on the floor, which was first drawn 30 years ago, during a dispute between Canadian and American insurance companies over who would pay for damage from a fire, librarian Mary Roy said. Upstairs in the opera house, where the seats include racks underneath for storing top hats, a summer theater camp was in session. Piano music pounded; children ran across the stage.

The structure was built, beginning in 1901, by Martha Haskell , a Canadian widow of an American businessman who made his fortune in part by selling chewing gum. The computers, as well as the front door, are in Vermont, while the stage and its delicate, hand-painted sets are in Quebec. Upcoming shows include a Frank Sinatra tribute concert and the Verdi opera "La Traviata" -- in English one day and French the next.

Keith Beadle , one of three elected trustees in Derby Line, where 800 people live, said in an interview Friday that trustees have no immediate plans to form a study committee. "We're not going to jump into it real quick," he said.

The psychological effects of the road closings would outweigh the inconvenience, said Beadle, who opposes the plan. "You'll look down Church Street and see these barricades and wonder, why is that there? Is there something I should be afraid of?" he said.

Such philosophical musings seemed to frustrate border officials.

"I know you have these old traditional values, but we are two countries, and by not blocking these roads, you are taking responsibility," Michael Desjardins , the resident agent in charge for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said at the meeting.

Some in the area agreed. Derby Line resident Annette Chenette , who crosses into Canada for weekly hair appointments at Salon Rene on Church Street, said the streets should be closed.

"If people can't take time to go around, tough," she said, lying back in her chair as the beauty shop's owner, Rene Lussier , permed her hair. "They'll get used to it."

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.


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