Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 89 in Lebanon snarls traffic, causes stir

  • Border Patrol agents stop traffic along I-89 south in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. Agents were stopping cars and asking occupants if they were U.S. citizens. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Asma Elhuni, left, of White River Junction, Vt., holds a sign with Suzanne Serat, of Hanover, N.H., over I-89 south in Lebanon, N.H., on Sept. 5, 2019. The sign alerts drivers that a Border Patrol check point is ahead of them on the interstate. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A Border Patrol agent asks a Valley News reporter to stop his car during a check point on I-89 in Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. The reporter and photographer were asked if they were U.S. citizens. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Border Patrol agents speak with the driver of a car after it was pulled over at a checkpoint on I-89 south in Lebanon, N.H., on Sept. 5, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A passerby photographed three men detained by authorities on Mechanic Street in Lebanon, N.H., on Sept. 4, 2019. (Courtesy photograph)

  • A man holding personal items as well as a Honduras passport reaches for the door of a vehicle involved in the detention of three men in Lebanon, N.H., on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writers
Published: 9/5/2019 11:41:17 AM

LEBANON — A U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 89 southbound in Lebanon snarled traffic throughout the city for much of Thursday, delaying commuters and angering some Upper Valley residents who characterized the effort as a waste of time and an affront to civil liberties.

About 20 Border Patrol and Homeland Security agents ran the checkpoint between exits 19 and 18, stopping vehicles in both lanes of the interstate, including buses from Greyhound and Advance Transit, to ask occupants if they were U.S. citizens.

The interior checkpoint capturing traffic coming from Vermont and West Lebanon came after federal immigration authorities made more than a dozen arrests in the Lebanon area earlier in the week. It remains unclear how many people were arrested or detained at Thursday’s checkpoint, which ran all day.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Steve Cribby said once the checkpoint has been completed, more information should be made available. Agents still were stopping vehicles around 5 p.m.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Border Patrol agents arrested 14 people in the Lebanon area who did not have immigration documentation that allowed them to enter or stay in the U.S. legally, Cribby said in a statement on Thursday.

Eleven of them were turned over to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for “removal proceedings,” Cribby said, and three were held by the U.S. Marshals Office pending felony prosecution for allegedly reentering the country after previously being deported.

The checkpoint drew protesters to the scene, and Border Patrol agents used yellow tape to section off a small “protest area” at the nearby rest area on the southbound interstate.

Immigration activists at the protest area attempted to approach Border Patrol officials on the interstate Thursday morning but were quickly turned away with threats of arrest.

“I don’t want anything to happen to you. It’s a public safety issue,” one agent told two activists.

When they asked the Border Patrol agent, who did not identify himself, why the checkpoint was taking place, he said they were “there to search for concealed humans.”

“It feels like a police state to me,” Hanover resident Suzanne Serat, one of the activists, said after the interaction. “I don’t want to think that every time I drive through here I’m going to be going by six large men with dogs who are going to stop me if they want to.”

A New Hampshire state trooper who was called to keep activists off the highway told them State Police were not providing assistance or working with Border Patrol on the checkpoint.

Police Chief Richard Mello also said that Lebanon officers were not part of the operation.

“As far as ‘working’ with federal authorities on immigration matters — we don’t,” Mello said via email. “Lebanon officers do not conduct immigration investigations nor do we assist Border Patrol, or any other federal agency, with investigating individual’s immigration status. Lebanon officers are trained not to inquire about an individual’s immigration status unless it is germane to an investigation involving a violation of New Hampshire state statutes/laws.”

Asked about the Lebanon location, Border Patrol spokesman Steven Bansbach said in an email that Border Patrol “carefully selects” locations along “routes of egress from the immediate border.” That is done to “maximize border enforcement while minimizing effects on the traveling public.”

“The timing, duration, locations and frequency of our tactical immigration checkpoints are law enforcement sensitive and not something we share,” he said.

The checkpoint drew criticism from U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., who called on Congress to curtail the zone near the border where Border Patrol can operate.

As federal law now stands, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers can make traffic stops within 100 aeronautical miles of the border without a warrant, and they have held some along Interstate 93 in Woodstock, N.H., during the Trump administration.

Thursday’s checkpoint was about 95 miles from the Canadian border and 90 miles from the external boundary along Maine’s coast.

Kuster said she has “serious concerns about the use of far-reaching interior border checkpoints.”

“These types of operations need to be done in a way that doesn’t infringe on the constitutional rights of Granite Staters or tarnish the image of New Hampshire as a great place to visit,” Kuster said in a statement. “I believe that narrowing the window in which these checkpoints can be operated will allow Customs and Border Patrol to do its job while respecting the rights of people in our state.”

Border Patrol checkpoints were held periodically along Interstate 91 in Hartford in the years following the Sept. 11 attacks, and Border Patrol agents also boarded a Greyhound bus in White River Junction two years ago.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has long objected to the interior stops and last year co-sponsored a bill that would reduce the “border zone” for boarding and searching vehicles to 25 miles and to 10 miles for the “dragnet-style” checkpoints. Kuster is a co-sponsor of companion legislation filed this summer by U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who was in Hanover on Thursday, was more muted in her response to the checkpoint, telling the Valley News she hasn’t reviewed the language of the legislation.

“I want to make sure the rights of New Hampshire citizens are protected,” she said of the checkpoint.

Cribby, the Border Protection spokesman, declined to identify where in Lebanon the arrests this week were made.

However, employees of the Mexican restaurant Gusanoz saw Border Patrol agents detaining three men along Route 4, aka the Miracle Mile, in Lebanon on Wednesday afternoon.

They saw a vehicle pulled over between Liberty Utilities and Lebanon Ford, and immigration officials holding three men who appeared to be Hispanic, said Nick Yager, the restaurant’s owner. A passport from Honduras was among what appeared to be the personal effects that authorities collected from the three men and placed in plastic bags.

Yager said immigration officials also had detained a 25-year-old Gusanoz employee and his roommate in late April. The employee, whom he declined to name, was charged with felony reentry and deported to Guatemala.

“His life was pretty much ruined,” Yager said, adding the employee was a “great kid” and a hard worker.

Gusanoz doesn’t hire people suspected of being in the country illegally, Yager said, but “the people who we have hired in the past who we later determine to be using a false identity have been exceptional workers every time.”

The checkpoint in Lebanon follows the arrest of 18 people without immigration documentation between July 29 and Aug. 1 in the Lebanon area, and a proposal by immigration activists and the Hartford Selectboard to prevent the town from sharing information about undocumented people with the federal government.

In raising concerns about the checkpoints, the ACLU also has published a “Your Rights in the Border Zone” guide for people who encounter the checkpoints.

Among the pointers, the ACLU says you may remain silent or only agree to answer questions with an attorney present, and do not have to answer questions about your immigration status. If you choose to remain silent, the agent likely will question you longer, but the silence alone is not enough to support probable cause or reasonable suspicion to arrest, detain, or search you or your belongings, the ACLU says.

The ACLU of New Hampshire said Thursday the Lebanon checkpoint was “far from the border” and that it was “disappointed” to see any checkpoint in the Granite State.

The stops “cause unnecessary delays and are a tax on time, as well as create a police state where law enforcement seize people without any suspicion that a crime has been committed,” Gilles Bissonnette, legal director at the ACLU of New Hampshire, said in a statement. “These checkpoints are against our core values of liberty in New Hampshire.”

And Dartmouth College, which supports protections for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children — some of whom are students at the school — said the “checkpoint activity in a rural area far from an international border is unnecessary and sends a message at odds with the open and welcoming values of an institution like Dartmouth.”

“While we continue to cooperate with federal law enforcement agencies as required by law, we remain steadfast in our commitment to maintaining an environment free of harassment and discrimination based on immigration or citizenship status,” Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson said.

The checkpoint, coupled with ongoing construction on Mechanic Street, resulted in long delays for commuters accustomed to zipping across Lebanon on the interstate, City Councilor Karen Liot Hill said.

“Right now, Border Patrol is extremely far from the border and really causing problems for families and citizens that are trying to live and work in Lebanon,” she said.

Former Democratic state Sen. Peter Burling also criticized the use of the checkpoint. The 74-year-old Cornish resident was stopped while driving his wife, former Superior Court Judge Jean Burling, to a doctor’s appointment in Lebanon.

“We’re going to steal money from all of the military and build a useless wall in the Southwest desert and they put 20 guys out in the middle of the street to block traffic on (Interstate) 89 to do what?” he asked. “This is not protecting America’s borders. This is causing an inconvenience in the heart of a community.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248. Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.



 


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