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Mrs. Leu, tear down that wall

She and her husband wanted to retire in peace in Washington, with a view of Canada. But a back wall has created an international incident.

May 26, 2007|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

Blaine, Wash. — 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 bona fide 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.... " She raises her hands above her head and mimes pulling her hair out. Her pink wire-rimmed glasses scrunch up against her face.

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.

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