Mrs. Leu, Tear Down That Wall

Los Angeles Times
May 26, 2007
By Alex Tizon

BLAINE, Washington  – The invisible line that divides Canada and the United States runs along a shallow ditch just beyond Shirley-Ann Leu’s backyard, so close she could cross the border in a single hop.  At 72, Shirley-Ann, a retired hairdresser, shows no such inclination. But some in her care — namely 11 Pomeranians, two toy poodles and a young neighbor girl whom she baby-sits — appear to her all too eager to jump the ditch and roam wild across Canada.

To prevent this, Shirley-Ann and her husband, Herbert, 69, a retired electrician, built a 4-foot-high concrete wall. They saw it as a perfect solution. The wall would enclose their wards and also keep their sloped backyard from crumbling into the ditch. Little did they know it would instigate a border conflict.

The Leus now find themselves in a legal fight against the U.S. government, which has the support of the Canadian government. The outcome will determine whether the wall stays, which party will pay if it has to be removed, and to what extent border authorities can control development on private property. Because the Leus’ wall is part of a larger project that includes a driveway, walking paths and patios — the entire outdoor part of their quarter-acre lot — the couple have stopped all construction until the case is resolved. The work involves heavy machinery, and the Leus don’t want to pay the extra cost of doing the project piecemeal.

In her backyard, Shirley-Ann stands amid mounds of lumber and rebar, looking as if she is about to cry. “We were supposed to retire and spend our days in peace,” she says. “Instead….”

Life for the couple has been complicated — and tense — since they moved from Hawaii a year and a half ago to this rural border town 110 miles north of Seattle. The wall dispute, involving an obscure agency and a little-known treaty, is only the most aggravating part of the strange reality of living next to an international boundary.

How could she explain it? Shirley-Ann pads around the wall to the edge of her property and places a foot in the ditch, her fuzzy black house slipper set daintily against the dirt. “That’s Canada,” she says, her words weighted with the notion that her foot is now subject to the rules of a different nation.

Running parallel to the ditch is a two-lane road, Zero Avenue, part of the Canadian municipality of Surrey. A handful of homes dots a rolling landscape of fields and pastures. Cars zip past at highway speed although the signed limit is 50 kilometers an hour (31 mph).

Every few hours on Zero Avenue, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police vehicle drives past. At the front of the Leus’ house, on the American side, the U.S. Border Patrol makes regular passes along West 99th Street. The Leus say it took a while to get used to the patrol cars passing day and night on both sides of their house.

Underground sensors hidden on the edges of Zero Avenue detect all kinds of movement. One neighbor on the American side, Bob Boulet, says every time he mowed his backyard last year, he set off a sensor and a Border Patrol helicopter came whizzing by within minutes. Boulet says he asked the Border Patrol to mow the lawn for him so he wouldn’t bother them anymore. The agency didn’t find the request amusing. Between Boulet’s house and Shirley-Ann’s, a surveillance camera swivels atop a 40-foot tower, watching and recording the goings-on in a 360-degree panorama.

All of this, for Shirley-Ann, translates to one thing: “Don’t even think about crossing the road,” she says, moving her foot back to the United States. “Try it. They’ll come after you.” Which is why, in her mind, it would be disastrous if one of her dogs or the little neighbor girl were ever to jump the ditch and cross over. First, they could be run over by a car. But if they made it, how would she get them back? The quickest legal way to retrieve them would be to drive west two miles into town, get in line at the truck crossing at Highway 543, show her documents, and drive back east onto Zero Avenue. It could take 10 minutes to get there and as long as three hours to get back, depending on traffic.

Or she could take her chances and run across the street. If she were caught, she could face a range of penalties. Crossing the border without passing through an official point of entry breaks the law on both sides. On the U.S. side, according to Border Patrol Agent Joseph Giuliano, deputy chief in the Blaine office, a border-jumper could face a $150 citation or up to a $5,000 fine and six months in jail. Walking back to her house, Shirley-Ann says: “People come visit and see where we live, and they flip out.”

THE U.S.-Canada border runs along the 49th parallel and stretches 5,525 miles over mountains, forests and prairies; through lakes, rivers and bays; from the tundra of the Arctic Ocean to the shores of the North Atlantic — the world’s longest undefended boundary.

Both countries have announced plans to create a coast-to-coast “virtual fence” with high-tech monitoring equipment, but vast stretches of the border remain largely unguarded. In many remote areas, mostly in the West, the only clue a boundary exists at all is the presence of a boundary monument: a 5-foot-tall concrete obelisk.

There are supposed to be about 8,600 such markers along the border, spaced so that at each marker, the next one can be seen. Some obelisks have toppled or been vandalized; others have been worn down by time and neglect. Behind the Leus’ house, bramble bushes shroud the markers along Zero Avenue, and much of the street corridor is overgrown with cottonwood and cedar trees.

A former fishing and logging town, Blaine, population about 4,000, is best-known as the northern terminus of Interstate 5 and the third-busiest checkpoint on the U.S.-Canada border, screening about 7 million passenger cars a year. East of the border station, on the outskirts of town, a little neighborhood surrounded by woods sits in relative isolation. It is a motley collection of old and new houses, old and young residents, and vacant lots still to be developed.

Besides the rural feel, the neighborhood’s biggest appeal is hinted at by the name of one of its main streets: Canada View Drive. On this road, which becomes West 99th Street, the houses along the ditch look out at British Columbia’s lush Fraser River Valley and beyond to the Coast Mountains. It was this view that first hooked Shirley-Ann and Herbert. Their stucco ranch-style house had been built with large picture windows facing Canada.

“Look at that,” says Shirley-Ann, sitting in a bay window of her living room.

Herbert, an exceedingly genial man with gray at the temples, sits nearby, smiling, letting his wife do the talking and occasionally chiming in with a “Yes, yes. That’s right.”

Their story in sum: lived in Hawaii 48 years, married 42 years, no children, recently retired. The couple found their fixed income didn’t go very far in Honolulu. “Some days we were living on pork and beans and toast,” Shirley-Ann says. Herbert smiles in affirmation.

In 2005, the couple sold their home in Hawaii and moved here, where land was cheap and they could be closer to Shirley-Ann’s relatives in Canada. And where the pooches, now kept in a chicken wire cage at the side of the house, could roam in a big yard. They hired a contractor to build the wall. Workers cleared the ground in August and poured the concrete in November. The wall stretched 85 feet and cost $15,000. In January came the knock at the front door.

THE man identified himself as a field engineer for the International Boundary Commission. Shirley-Ann vividly recalls the conversation:

“He says to me, ‘Your wall violates the treaty.’ ”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she responded.

“The Treaty of 1925,” the man said, handing her a brochure. “Someone will be contacting you.” Before the man left, Shirley-Ann asked a question she has asked numerous times since. “Who are you again?”

She and Herbert had never heard of the International Boundary Commission. Neither had the city of Blaine, which had approved the wall and issued the permits. “I was surprised too,” says Blaine City Manager Gary Tomsic, referring to the IBC. The treaty was news to him. The official name is the Treaty Between Canada and the United States of America to Define More Accurately and to Complete the International Boundary Between the Two Countries.

The document, signed by then-U.S. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes and Canadian Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe, established the IBC as a binational agency with one commissioner in each country, and charged the agency with maintaining an “effective” boundary. This meant, in part, maintaining a clear 20-foot-wide “boundary vista,” or swath — 10 feet on each side — along the entire border.

In a hand-delivered letter to the Leus in February, the IBC told the couple that the wall, although inside their property line, encroached 30 inches into the boundary vista and would have to be torn down or moved.

“If the wall is not removed and/or relocated … then the commission may itself cause the wall to be removed and the expenses for the removal will be invoiced by you,” wrote the U.S. commissioner for the IBC, Dennis Schornack.

In April, the Leus filed the first lawsuit ever brought against the agency. The Leus’ lawyer, Brian Hodges, says the IBC has no authority to condemn property or regulate development on private lots without providing adequate notice to owners and local governments. The fact that Blaine officials knew nothing about the boundary-vista setback, Hodges argues, indicates the agency had not done a satisfactory job of notifying the public.

In a phone interview from his Washington, D.C., office, Schornack said he could not comment on the Leus’ case except to say property owners close to the border had “a common-sense obligation” to inquire about federal restrictions. He added that property owners in past conflicts willingly obeyed IBC requests. Schornack’s half of the agency (the other half is in Ottawa) has an annual budget of $1.4 million. “Budget dust,” Schornack says.

The amount is barely enough to accomplish the agency’s primary mission, which is to maintain a clearly visible boundary. This means hiring work crews to go into remote areas with chain saws and machetes. Some sections in Alaska, Washington, Idaho and Montana have not been cleared in decades.

In a sense, the IBC is a victim of the historically good relations between Canada and the U.S., said Deputy Commissioner Kyle Hipsley. Because “we’ve always been friends with Canada,” he says, the work of the agency isn’t seen as an urgent funding priority in Congress.

Schornack and Hipsley say they hope Congress will realize the importance of their work: The agency has asked to double its budget for 2008.

In Seattle, the U.S. attorney’s office is preparing a response on behalf of the IBC. The deadline is in June. The Leus continue to stare out at the construction site that would be their backyard. Shirley-Ann, unable to set her dogs loose or plant flowers in the garden, pores over documents related to the case. Stacks of paper litter the floor beneath her chair in the bay window. Occasionally she glances out at the view, as if trying to remember something. Every once in a while she issues a statement directed at the world.

“Retire in peace. Ha,” she says.

“Yes,” says Herbert, still smiling. “That’s right.”