Editorial: Leave Us Alone; Permanent Checkpoints Considered

Consider this a thank-you note to the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for alerting Upper Valley residents to the fact that the U.S. Border Patrol has made preparations to establish a permanent checkpoint along the interstate for harassing motorists. Or maybe more than one checkpoint along more than one interstate.

Actually, “harass” might not be the right term. Judging from the encounters Upper Valley drivers had at the temporary checkpoint operated frequently along Interstate 91 in White River Junction in 2004 and 2005, Border Patrol agents are generally courteous and quick when performing such stops. And although the inconvenience of submitting oneself to a few perfunctory questions from people in uniform is no minor matter for those who find themselves doing it regularly, that’s not really what’s at issue. American citizens who are going about their routine business and doing nothing that should give rise to suspicion ought to instinctively rebel at the notion that agents of the government have the authority to check in on them. The right not to have to answer questions from the government unless it has solid grounds for asking them is surely fundamental to liberty and privacy.

Under certain conditions, of course, the government has every right to routinely give us the once-over, including when we’re greeted by agents when re-entering the country. The government has the responsibility to ensure that, first, we have the right to be in the country and, second, that we aren’t bringing along anything or anybody that is forbidden. The problem is that the Border Patrol asserts the authority to stop and search anybody — not just those for whom it has a warrant or reasonable grounds for suspicion — within 100 miles of an international border. Because of Vermont’s proximity to Canada and the Atlantic Ocean, that means that about 90 percent of Vermont residents are liable to such searches whenever they venture into public.

Exactly what, if anything, the Border Patrol has in mind regarding the construction of a permanent checkpoint is far from clear. The ACLU discovered the Border Patrol’s preliminary work while compiling a report on the growth of government surveillance in Vermont since 9/11. A 2006 study discovered by the ACLU indicated that the Border Patrol had explored the suitability of numerous locations along interstates 89 and 91, including more than a dozen in the Upper Valley. The purpose of a permanent facility would be to “catch aliens that have infiltrated” the country, according to the Border Patrol report, and that would require a multi-faceted station that included, among other things, holding cells, an armory and an intelligence office. It’s worth noting that the temporary checkpoint operated in White River Junction was initially justified as an anti-terrorism measure. That the Border Patrol would feel comfortable mounting a wide-scale intrusion into private citizens’ lives for the far less-compelling security threat of illegal immigration validates those who fear the checkpoint was situated on a slippery slope.

No decision has been made to execute the plan. The Border Patrol has declined to identify which properties made the final cut, and its official statement on the matter said nothing beyond asserting the importance of checkpoints in “securing our nation’s borders against transnational threats.” The ACLU plausibly argues that the Border Patrol’s preliminary work is extensive enough that it now is in position to quickly start construction if circumstances change — another terrorist attack, say, or a sudden infusion of money.

On that front, signals are mixed. To secure conservative support for the immigration reform bill in the Senate, almost $40 billion was thrown into the measure to nearly double the number of Border Patrol agents. The expansion would be directed at guarding the U.S.-Mexico border, but there is clearly a possibility that the agency will find itself glutted with resources in the near future. The bill passed the Senate and awaits action in the House.

On the other hand, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., an impassioned opponent of operating checkpoints far from the border, inserted a provision into the immigration bill that would forbid the Border Patrol to conduct vehicle stops more than 25 miles from the border (while also prohibiting warrantless searches of private property more than 10 miles from the border). That would protect the Upper Valley from permanent checkpoints and, from a less parochial perspective, square with most Americans’ firmly held beliefs about individual liberty. So consider this a thank-you note to Vermont’s senior senator as well.