Vermont divided on opinions of ramped up Border Patrol checkpoints

Published: 9/15/2019 9:58:37 PM
Modified: 9/15/2019 9:58:33 PM

David Bahrenburg was driving across Lake Champlain late Monday afternoon, over the causeway that connects Milton and South Hero, when he saw U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents directing traffic in the southbound lane.

For the fourth time since May, agents were stopping traffic on the bridge about 30 miles south of the Canadian border and screening drivers for their citizenship status.

After passing by the Border Patrol checkpoint, on the other side of the bridge in South Hero, Bahrenburg saw people on the edge of the southbound lane holding up signs in Spanish — an attempt to warn any undocumented immigrants approaching the causeway.

At around the same time, Bahrenburg’s wife, Diane, had received an email warning her of the federal agents on the bridge, known as the Sandbar Causeway. The message encouraged her and about 40 people on the email chain, who have become concerned over the increasingly common checkpoints, to mobilize to the area with signs.

The Bahrenburgs, who live north of the checkpoint in North Hero, said they oppose the checkpoints, which they view as an attempt by the federal government to target migrant workers in the area, including many who work on nearby farms.

“It’s horrible,” said Diane Bahrenburg. “It’s an invasion of workers’ rights. I can’t believe it’s happening in this community.”

In May, for the first time in years, CBP deployed a roadway citizenship checkpoint in Vermont, setting up along the bridge that connects Milton and South Hero. Since then, the agency has returned to the same spot three times, June, July, and last week.

In recent days, the agency has ramped up its use of checkpoints across the state. CBP conducted four checkpoints on Thursday — two on Route 105 in Berkshire, one on Route 118 in Montgomery and one Route 118 in Eden — and one on Route 105 in Berkshire on Friday.

The checkpoints run by CBP in the last four months have resulted in only one arrest. In June, after the checkpoint in South Hero, the agency announced it detained a Mexican citizen who they say was “illegally present.” It declined to identify the person, but said the individual was facing civil, rather than criminal, proceedings.

While CBP provided little detail, it said that Friday’s checkpoint in Berkshire resulted in two narcotics seizures, but no arrests.

CBP officials have said that the agency can’t detail why it chooses certain locations for checkpoints, or conducts them when it does.

“The timing, locations and frequency of our tactical immigration checkpoints are law enforcement sensitive and not something we share,” Michael McCarthy, a spokesperson for CBP, said.

Vermont officials and residents are divided over the recent ramp up of checkpoints.

While some say that the increased CBP presence is an important measure to secure U.S. borders and assist local law enforcement in efforts to curb drug trafficking, others have raised civil rights concerns.

The American Civil Liberties Union has said CBP checkpoints are intrusive, and violate Fourth Amendment rights, which protect citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. Will Lambek, an organizer with Migrant Justice, an organization that advocates for Vermont’s immigrant farmworkers, said the checkpoints are “designed to terrorize immigrant communities”

But many law enforcement officials in Vermont say the practice is valuable.

Ray Allen, the Grand Isle County sheriff, who oversees South Hero, said that he appreciates the work CBP agents have done to boost law enforcement resources in the area.

“What I actually see is them doing their job that they were mandated to do and they were hired to do, whether it’s immigration or drug smuggling,” Allen said of the recent checkpoints.

“If nothing else it’s sending out a message that you need to be careful when you’re coming through Vermont, that we are watching.”

A focus on the bridge to South Hero

In an interview last month, McCarthy, the CBP spokesperson, said that typically, when agents choose a location for a checkpoint, it’s “based on intelligence” and the CBP’s “knowledge of the sector.”

Gary Viens, a former Republican state representative who previously worked as a deputy chief patrol agent for Border Patrol in Vermont, also said that the checkpoints are usually “intelligence-driven.”

“They’re looking for something specific, I would assume,” said Viens, who has been retired for 10 years.

CBP checkpoints used to be conducted more frequently in Vermont. Viens said that during his time at the agency, there would be six or seven per year.

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.

While CBP has declined to explain why it has recently focused checkpoints on South Hero, local law enforcement, elected officials and residents say that from a strategic standpoint, setting them up on the bridge makes sense.

From the state’s border with Canada in Alburgh, drivers have few options if they want to leave the Champlain Valley Islands, and reach the rest of Vermont, New York State and all points south.

Allen called the causeway a “prime location” for a CBP checkpoint.

“There’s only one road through and we connect to New York and Canada,” he said.

“If they were to do something like that in Franklin County, there are just so many routes that can be bypassed.”

Like Allen, Rep. Leland Morgan, R-Milton, said he supports the checkpoints.

“We have to secure our borders and if it inconveniences a person once in a while, that’s just the way it is,” he said. “You have to have some compromise, you can’t let everybody do everything they want to do. There has to be some control and I’m all for that.”

Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, said he’d like to know more from the federal government about why it has been repeatedly conducting checkpoints in his district.

He said it seemed “really obsessive” that agents keep returning to the causeway and that he hasn’t heard anything from agents about why they keep returning.

“I’d like to know more about it — is it justified and what the reason is,” Mazza said. “There’s a question of why the occurrence now — what brought it about?”

The border zone

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., have pushed for legislation to restrict the area in which CBP can conduct stops. Under current law, the agency has expanded powers to conduct searches within 100 miles of U.S. borders, including ocean borders.

All three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation support decreasing CBP’s “border zone” from 100 to 25 miles. And, the three publicly criticized CBP’s plans to increase checkpoints in the state after they were briefed on them last year.

“Nearly 900 cars were stopped in Vermont,” Leahy tweeted after CBP conducted its checkpoint in June. “One person was found to be overstaying a visa. Fishing expeditions are a terrible use of our law enforcement resources.”

Republican Gov. Phil Scott told reporters on Thursday that he agreed the border zone should be limited.

“I would like to see us tighten that a bit. One hundred miles seems excessive,” the governor said. “But at the same time they have a job to do — they are working within their limits.”

Walking out of Wally’s Place, a bagel shop in South Hero, Thursday morning, Jenna McKenzie, a resident of Isle La Motte, said she had no problem with the checkpoints.

“They’ve got a reason for it obviously,” she said. “They’re just doing their job, that’s all.”

Barbara Gardner, who works at the bagel shop, felt differently.

When the checkpoints started taking place, at first, she thought the agents were only looking for drugs. But when she learned they were enforcing immigration laws, she grew concerned.

“It scares me just to be able to pull people driving down the road doing nothing wrong, looking for brown people,” she said.

She sees the checkpoints as part of President Donald Trump’s efforts to ramp up U.S. immigration enforcement, and said she never thought Vermont would feel the effects of the federal policy.

“I thought it wouldn’t hit that close to home,” she said. “I didn’t think it would happen here.”

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