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Leahy: No Internal Border Patrol Checkpoints

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has asked the Department of Homeland Security to clarify whether the agency plans to build permanent border checkpoints in Vermont. Leahy’s request comes after the release of documents that show the agency has conducted detailed studies of prospective locations for such facilities far from the Canadian Border.

In a letter to Rand Beers, the acting director of DHS, Leahy cited a trove of papers obtained by the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union that show in 2006 the Border Patrol evaluated several locations in the Twin States, including sites in the Upper Valley.

The same documents showed that when the Border Patrol operated a temporary checkpoint on Interstate 91 in Hartford during that period, most of the contraband agents confiscated was small amounts of marijuana.

“I have never been convinced that the effectiveness of the temporary Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 91 outweighs its intrusion into the lives of law abiding Vermonters,” Leahy wrote, saying he was seeking “reassurance” that no plans to build a permanent checkpoint are being pursued. “For example, as the documents obtained by the Vermont ACLU make clear, the majority of contraband seizures that occurred between 2004 and 2010 involved small amounts of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia. It is difficult to agree that these seizures justify the intrusiveness that all Vermonters and visitors to the state experience when encountering this federal checkpoint.”

In a statement released Monday evening, the Border Patrol Public Affairs Office said the agency had no plans to build a checkpoint in Vermont.

“The U.S. Border Patrol presently has no plans to erect permanent checkpoints in Vermont,” the agency said. “The documents referenced in the ACLU report were from several years ago, we exercised due diligence and explored the feasibility of establishing permanent checkpoints.”

The Vermont ACLU yesterday endorsed Leahy’s letter.

“Sen. Leahy has for quite some time pointed out that internal checkpoints are not necessarily a good tool in fighting terrorists trying to come into the country,” Executive Director Allen Gilbert said. “He’s also pointed out the checkpoints are an affront to law-abiding persons’ right to move freely within the state and country. ”

The ACLU released documents it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests that show the Border Patrol in 2006 had planned extensively for substantial presence on area interstates. The agency envisioned an eight- to 12-acre site with several outbuildings, and had whittled down the potential sites for a permanent checkpoint to seven locations on Interstate 89 and five on I-91. While the list of finalists and other key details were redacted by federal authorities, the documents showed the Border Patrol had examined sites on I-91 in Newbury, Bradford, Fairlee, Thetford, Norwich, Hartford and Hartland, and on I-89 in Randolph, Bethel, Royalton, Hartford, Lebanon and Enfield.

Additionally, the Hartford rest area on I-91, where Border Patrol operated the temporary checkpoint, was rebuilt by the state last year. The area includes a large new sewer line and adjoins a National Guard armory, presumably opening up the site to further development.

The Border Patrol has authority to stop and search travelers without reasonable suspicion or a warrant within 100 miles of an international border. More than 90 percent of Vermonters live within 100 miles of Canada or the Atlantic coast.

Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has repeatedly questioned officials from the Department of Homeland Security about the effectiveness of internal checkpoints.

He also championed a provision in an immigration bill that passed the Senate in June which limits to 25 miles the distance from the border in which Border Patrol agents could conduct vehicle stops. (No part of the Upper Valley would fall within that zone.)

The immigration overhaul bill is languishing in the House of Representatives.

“This provision was approved in part with the recognition that the enforcement needs on the northern border differ from the needs on the southern border,” Leahy wrote. “Any plans for a permanent Border Patrol checkpoint nearly 100 miles from Vermont’s border with Canada are inconsistent with the policy the Senate approved.”

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.