fbpx

For immigrants, this historic library is a quirky U.S.-Canada ‘neutral zone’

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House sits exactly across the U.S.-Canada border, creating a quirky sort of immigration zone with its own special set of challenges. Note the barrier of flower pots out front, to prevent drivers from accidentally crossing over into the other country. (Photo source: haskellopera.com)
The Haskell Free Library and Opera House sits exactly across the U.S.-Canada border, creating a quirky sort of immigration zone with its own special set of challenges. Note the barrier of flower pots out front, to prevent drivers from accidentally crossing over into the other country. (Photo source: haskellopera.com)

It’s becoming harder and harder for the Haskell Free Library to be part of Canada and the United States at the same time. 

The remarkable, century-old building straddles the border between the two countries — and families that can’t freely across the border, particularly Iranians, have often used it for tearful reunions. 

But with ever-greater security measures in place, even these lawful gatherings are at risk.

An American door

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House is located partly in the town of Derby Line, Vermont, and partly in Stanstead, Quebec. 

The sole entrance to the public building is via a door on the American side. Canadian library patrons are typically permitted to cross a few feet into American territory to access the door.

Once inside, black tape on the floor indicates the actual international boundary — but patrons, whether they have visas for both countries or not, can criss-cross the border as they go about their visit to the library. 

Library workers remain vigilant — not long ago, a Canadian weapons trafficker stashed a bag of guns in the bathroom for his accomplice to take to the United States.

The towns are enormously proud of the library, but security measures enacted since 9/11 have changed things. 

Surveillance Street

The actual border is a street — a shared boulevard where neighbors from the United States and Canada could walk back and forth and visit each other without concern. 

The black tape on the floor marks the international borderline running through the Haskell Free Library and Opera House in Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Canada. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nowadays, they stand at the invisible line running down the middle of the road and chat, mindful of the array of surveillance technologies that have been erected.

Locals and out-of-towners who commit infractions, like following an errant GPS, are regularly detained and questioned for hours by both Canadian and American border patrol agents. 

But the most harrowing accounts comes from the Iranians. 

The Trump administration’s ban on visitors from various foreign countries has affected them the most, as it is nearly impossible for those living in Canada to enter the United States legally. 

Likewise, it is extremely risky for those living in the U.S. legally to leave, even if briefly, since they might not be allowed back in. 

That’s where the library comes in.

Neutral zone

Iranian family members arrive in a trickle from both sides of the border, and often stay all day, in the library’s de facto neutral zone. 

But even being allowed into the library is getting more and more difficult. 

Iranians tell stories of harassment and detention caused by the ever-more-vigilant border officers.

From the border agents’ standpoint, a traditionally open border like the Derby Line-Stanstead library is an invitation to clandestine activity. 

Trafficking marijuana, guns and human beings is also increasing. 

P-WACs — “people without admission from Canada” — are being detained in ever greater numbers, though still tiny compared to the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The most common detainees are Romanians and Mexicans, who can travel from their home countries to Canada without a visa.

No border wall exists or is contemplated, but the mayor of Stanstead points out that he had a row of flower planters put up along a particularly confusing section of the international boundary, to block drivers from inadvertently crossing into the U.S. and getting swarmed by American border agents.

Sources: Christian Science Monitor, NPR News, Reuters

Topics:
%d bloggers like this: