Story from March 2012 Living on the Peninsula magazine.
Story by Ashley Miller
The sky is slightly overcast with gray clouds and a distinct chill in the air, reminding everybody that spring still is officially a few weeks away.
Dressed in a heavy green uniform with lace-up black boots and a warm jacket, Joe Romero doesn’t let the chilly weather slow him down. Rubbing the top of his shaved bald head with a strong, large palm, Romero smiles and admits that he hasn’t completely adjusted to the climate change from Texas, from where he transferred almost two years ago, to Washington.
Romero, who stands well over 6-feet tall, is a supervisory Border Patrol agent. While a portion of his day is spent in the basement of the Richard B. Anderson Federal Building in downtown Port Angeles doing paperwork and making phone calls, the rest is spent in the field.
“This is my office,” Romero said, leaning forward against the steering wheel of the white and green 4-by-4 Border Patrol vehicle and motioning toward the highway, back roads and wilderness. “I love my office.”
The U.S. Border Patrol is the mobile uniformed law enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security. It officially was established on May 28, 1924, by an act of Congress passed in response to increasing illegal immigration. The Border Patrol station in Port Angeles was activated on May 16, 1988.
Unofficially, the organization’s presence on the North Olympic Peninsula dates back as far as the late 1800s when the government employed “Chinese inspectors” in Forks to apprehend illegal aliens working in logging camps. Then, in later years, mounted guards rode over the land in search of liquor smugglers.
Romero said he takes pride in the Border Patrol’s extensive history throughout the country and within his own family. In his younger years, Romero rebelled against the idea of following in his family’s footsteps and attended school to become a registered nurse. During clinical examinations, he left nursing school and applied to become a Border Patrol agent.
After nearly one year of waiting to get accepted into the training academy and then 2½ months of training similar to military boot camp, Romero passed the mandatory Spanish test and received his first assignment. That was more than six years ago and he’s never once regretted the decision, Romero said.
“I get to work with the most dedicated men and women I’ve ever known,” he said. “I’ve seen our people go into situations where other people would run. It takes a special breed to do what we do.”
Driving west on U.S. Highway 101, Romero turns on his right blinker and exits onto state Highway 112 toward Forks. It’s routine for a Border Patrol agent to drive toward Forks and check each port and cove along the way for suspicious activity, then on the way back, check them each again.
From Port Townsend to Neah Bay, the Port Angeles station covers 183 miles of border.
During the day, agents observe vessels at sea and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca through high-powered binoculars, calling anything out of the ordinary in to the station to be checked out. After dark, night vision goggles and radiation detectors help find hazardous material and illegal activity. The equipment is so sensitive that it even can detect patients undergoing chemotherapy.
In addition to patrolling the ports of entry and hidden coves, agents routinely check in at the ferry dock and chat with citizens in each of the towns.
“We strongly encourage agents to get out and talk to people,” Romero said. “The citizens know the area best and who is usually seen around or not.”
In fact, a majority of tips and leads come from local residents and are received while agents are out and about immersing themselves in the community.
Romero sips from a 16-ounce espresso. Another empty container sits next to the full one in the center console. The barista at the coffee stand knows Romero and several other agents by name and as loyal customers.
Across the scanner, fellow agents call in license plates, fishing vessel numbers and other details constantly throughout the day. On other frequencies, the police and sheriff departments, U.S. Fish & Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service communications can be heard.
After Romero finishes patrolling the areas he was assigned earlier in the morning, he turns the vehicle around and heads back to town.
To a bystander, it might appear that he’s aimlessly driving around with nothing to do, Romero acknowledged. This couldn’t be further from the truth, though, he insisted.
“If people knew all that we do and we could share all that we know, they would want more of us in the area,” Romero said.
While the Border Patrol is well-known for arresting illegal aliens, it does a lot more than just that. Agents also protect against domestic terrorism, contraband or illegal trade and narcotics trafficking.
“There is a huge problem around here with meth, heroin and cocaine,” Romero said. “And guess what? It doesn’t just show up here, it’s shipped here.”
In recent months, the Border Patrol has renewed its dedication toward battling drugs in the area.
“We are prepared to go to war against drugs,” Romero said. “We raise our kids in the same towns and shop at the same stores and we won’t stand for any harm against our community.”
While overall apprehension rates have increased, Romero purses his lips and shakes his head when asked too many details about how many arrests have been made, how many illegal aliens were sent away or the number of agents employed at the Port Angeles station.
Disclosing too many details, he cautioned, can put agents in danger.
Romero tries to put community members at ease by assuring them, however, that an increase in apprehensions isn’t necessarily something to be feared.
“The activity has been here all along but by working with the community we are able to pick up more offenders,” he said. “We are very fortunate to have a great team of agents bringing in an unprecedented amount of information back to us and everything is working in tandem.”
As he drives, Romero looks for anything out of the ordinary. It could be obvious, such as a vehicle riding considerably lower on one side than the other and transporting narcotics, or less apparent: clean areas on a dirty vehicle or perhaps the nervous behavior of a driver.
“I don’t care how minimal it seems, we take everything seriously,” Romero said. “We take every scrap of information and connect the dots between them.”
Unlike a police officer, Romero can’t give warnings.
“We don’t differentiate between undocumented aliens who’ve been here one day or six years,” he said as an example. “You are either in violation of the law or you aren’t. There’s no in-between.”
While he empathizes with people and their situations, Romero offers no sympathy.
“Sympathy is dangerous for an agent,” he explained. “I can’t let my emotions interfere with what I know I have to do.”
Such professionalism was put to the test last summer when Romero arrested Sequim resident and Korean national Hung Han at the Port Angeles Farmers Market. Han had been living in the U.S. for about six years and never attained legal resident status. At the time, market bystanders reported that they were shocked to see a productive member of society arrested and that they were concerned the family was targeted simply because they were Korean.
Romero said he’s happy to report that Han, after facing deportation, has the proper paperwork to be living legally in the U.S. now and continues to be a friendly face at the market.
“When we see each other now, we wave and say hello.
There are no hard feelings,” Romero said. “It’s not personal or that I don’t like somebody. It’s the law.”
After covering hundreds of miles in his vehicle and talking to numerous people, Romero is ready to call it a day. But he can’t head home yet. First, he must return to town, park the vehicle in the designated parking garage a few blocks away, walk back to the station and then fill out the necessary paperwork for the day.
Officially, agents work eight hours a day and rotate between shifts so that the organization operates 24 hours a day. Unofficially, eight-hour shifts commonly spill over into 10 hours with administrative uncontrolled overtime for paperwork and other added duties.
This summer, possibly by the end of June, some of the time spent traveling between the station, the garage and storage lockers will be eliminated when plans for a new multi-million building are completed, Romero said.
The headquarters will be at 110 S. Penn St., near the Port Angeles city limit, and will be able to house up to 50 agents.
Most importantly, keeping all the vehicles, supplies and offices in one location will increase response time, Romero said.
In the meantime, Romero and the other agents try to stay under the radar and out of the headlines.
“We measure our success by people not knowing what we do on a day-to-day basis,” Romero said. “If we’re not in the news, we’re doing our jobs well.”