Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hiker banned for 5 years for straying across border (Osoyoos Times)


May 21, 2008
By Paul Everest
Osoyoos Times

A local man who has been ordered to stay out of the U.S. for five years said he is being unfairly punished for what he says was an honest mistake while hiking through the mountains west of Osoyoos near the Washington state border.

But American officials said Dietrich Leclerc, 23, should have known better.

Leclerc, who lives with friends just north of Osoyoos and works at the Sage Pub, said he had two days off from work on May 5 and 6 and decided to use them to explore some of the countryside between here and Keremeos. He said he headed west on the morning of May 5 with some camping gear and ended up by the Similkameen River that night.

The next morning, Leclerc said he awoke and passed through a gate which was unmarked. He said he's not an expert navigator and eventually came upon a road he mistook as Hwy. 3. It was not until he noticed speed limit signs indicating mileage and Washington state licence plates that he realized he had crossed the international boundary.

Once he realized what he calls an honest error, Leclerc decided to hitchhike back to the Osoyoos border crossing and explain the situation to border officials, rather than risk crossing back into Canada and being caught.

"I was trying to see it from their viewpoint and turned myself in," he said. "I thought it would look bad if I were caught.

"As it turns out, the first car that came along was a U.S. port of entry officer on his way to work who picked up Leclerc, who explained what had happened.

Leclerc said the agent was understanding and took him to the border crossing. But it wasn't long before he was placed under arrest, handcuffed and driven to a holding cell in Oroville just before 9 a.m.

"They thought I was smuggling drugs," he said, adding that he was taken out of the cell throughout the day and questioned and his belongings were searched. "I felt deceived, violated and lied to."

A journal that Leclerc said he took on his frequent travels throughout North America was found in his baggage. He said some notes were found in the journal describing a trip he took to Mexico in November 2007 where he met a girl who is Muslim who planned on travelling to Tunisia. At that point, Leclerc said, the border agents began to question him about terrorism. He added that the agents photocopied the notes.

Leclerc said he was finally released back into Canada around 8:30 p.m. that evening with an order that he is not allowed to enter the U.S. for five years.

"There's no possible way for me to get back in unless I want to go to jail," he said. "It kind of limits me. It's a great place. I have lots of friends in places."

Danielle Suarez, spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, confirmed that Leclerc "crossed illegally" and that he is not allowed back into the U.S. for five years.

"Anyone who enters the U.S. illegally is subject to being deported," she said.

As for Leclerc's position that he was simply unaware that he had strayed across the border, Suarez said the investigating officers weren't convinced.

"His story had a lot of discrepancies in it," she said, adding that Leclerc allegedly told the port of entry officer that he only wanted to hitchhike back to the Osoyoos border crossing. "Our agents are skilled and trained to see if a story jives.

"He clearly wasn't being candid with our agents."

And, Suarez said, Leclerc was released from the Oroville holding station closer to 3 p.m.

Suarez also said it is highly unlikely that Leclerc could have crossed the international boundary without knowing it, adding there are monuments, signs and gates all along the border between B.C. and Washington state.

"He actually crossed through a gate," she said. "This area (where he crossed) is known for drug smuggling. Because of this, our agents are going to respond in this way."

One Osoyoos resident who has property which extends to the U.S. border said it is possible in many spots to cross the border without realizing it.

"You can walk through the border for 400 or 500 yards and not know it," said the man, who asked not to be identified. "People are doing it all the time. It's easy."

But judging from the story, the man said Leclerc ended up at the Nighthawk Road in Washington state which is more than a kilometre from the border.

"When you are that far down, there's some due diligence on your part to know it," the man said. "He's lucky he's not in jail."

The man also said many people do intentionally cross the border illegally in wilderness areas.

Leclerc said he understands that border protocols are much stricter in the post-9/11 world but he stands by his position that he made an error and tried to correct it in the best way possible. Although he has considered writing to his MLA and MP, he doubts he'll be able to have the deportation order reversed.

"I don't think there's anything I can do," Leclerc said.

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