Pedro Perez has not left Orcas Island in more than four months. Not for weekend trips with his family, not for cheaper groceries on the mainland, not for medical care – not for anything.
He is afraid border agents will stop him and send him back to Mexico, wrecking the quiet life he has built on one of Washington's remote San Juan Islands.
“I had my eyes on this place for my kids to grow up in,” Perez, who is married with two young children, said in Spanish. “There's no gangs here, no crime. It's the kids who suffer.”
Perez – who does odd jobs, mostly landscaping – is one of perhaps dozens of illegal immigrants on the islands who have been essentially trapped since February, when the U.S. Border Patrol began checking IDs on ferry runs from the islands to the mainland.
Others have taken the risk and paid the price: As of late May, 49 people had been arrested by the Border Patrol and face deportation. All but one were Latin American.
The spot checks have alarmed island locals and leaders. And the Hispanic “community is paranoid, not wanting to go out on the street,” said Kevin Ranker, a San Juan County Council member.
Under the new rules for the San Juans, drivers arriving on the mainland at Anacortes are sometimes stopped and asked for identification. The Border Patrol said the ferry checks are a vital part of securing a porous border.
The San Juans are just a few miles from Canada's Vancouver Island and lie close to the international shipping routes used by cargo ships that call at Seattle and Tacoma. The maze of islands, channels and coves has been used for decades by smugglers trafficking in everything from Prohibition-era booze to marijuana today.
“We have to consider terrorist types may at least be taking a look at the established smuggling enterprise in the Northwest,” said Joe Giuliano, deputy chief patrol agent.
In 1999, an Algerian man was caught by customs agents in nearby Port Angeles with explosives in the trunk of his rental car when he drove off a ferry from British Columbia. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2005 for plotting to blow up the Los Angeles airport during the millennium celebration.
So far, the ferry ID checks have not led to the arrest of anyone suspected of being a terrorist.
The scenic San Juans are a pastoral spot a few hours from Seattle. Their relative isolation makes them one of the region's premier destinations for tourists and retirees. The coastal mansions of high-tech millionaires lie close by old farmhouses and funky artists' cottages.
The more than 15,500 residents rely on the state-run ferry system to reach the mainland to shop at supermarkets and department stores and do other errands. The stores on the islands are mostly small and the prices high. The 14-mile ferry trip between Orcas Island and Anacortes takes about an hour.
County and city politicians have sent a letter protesting the spot checks to their congressional delegation, and organizations outside the islands have also taken notice.
“These ferry raids may well represent unconstitutional racial profiling. Equally important, they also deeply disrupt the economic and social foundations of these tightly knit island communities,” said Shankar Narayan of Hate Free Zone, a Seattle-based immigrant advocate organization.
One whole family was arrested, prompting a local Roman Catholic church to raise $30,000 in bail money.
Another man was arrested while driving an elderly woman to the hospital on the mainland, and free English classes have seen a deep decline in attendance, said Jeff Bossler, an activist on Orcas Island.
“Wives and children are minus husbands and fathers. That really stabs at the heart,” Bossler said.
But Giuliano said of those arrested: “They're in the process of violating the law of the United States. It's a personal decision to violate the law, to obtain employment they were not entitled to get. They created their fear through their own actions.”
The ferry security is part of a larger strategy that includes checks at bus terminals and on highways.
One of those arrested at the ferry terminal was Sebastian Quintero, who was caught on the way to pick up his wife from the airport and now faces deportation. The couple, who met on Orcas Island a couple of years ago, have a month-old baby boy and a 20-month-old girl. The family used all their savings on Quintero's bail.
“They left us in ruins,” said Quintero's wife, Crystal, a permanent U.S. resident. The family will probably go back to Mexico.