Editor’s note: This article is by Mark Davis of the Valley News, in which it was first published Sept. 24, 2013.
HARTFORD — Might the U.S. Department of Homeland Security revive controversial checkpoints on interstates deep inside the Twin States? A civil liberties group thinks it could.
The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union recently obtained hundreds of documents showing the U.S. Border Patrol had scoured dozens of locations on interstates 89 and 91 and conducted a detailed study about the best place to erect a large, permanent checkpoint to “catch aliens that have infiltrated across the border.”
The Border Patrol report, from 2006, said that it was assumed that the agency would eventually operate so-called “secondary checkpoints,” on all five major north-south interstates in the Northeast — Interstates 87, 89, 91, 93 and 95.
Though federal authorities have given no definitive word, the plans to build the checkpoints currently appear to be on hold, the ACLU said. However, the organization said it was concerned that the federal government could quickly put the plans into action.
“It’s not just idle talk. You don’t invest that kind of money to do that thorough an engineering study if you don’t have something in mind,” said Vermont ACLU staff attorney Dan Barrett, who filed several public records requests to obtain the documents. “They have done some homework here. What we want people to know is there’s nothing about these plans that say the government can’t (begin) today. All they have to do is buy the property they have already selected. To us, you’re not just going to discard these kinds of studies and drawings. If there’s a change in administration, or another terrorist attack — if the money and political will materializes — then it’s go time.”
It has been several years since Border Patrol agents have manned a periodic checkpoint along Interstate 91 in White River Junction that riled both privacy advocates and many Upper Valley residents, who were stopped and questioned. Border Patrol officials also have stopped motorists on Interstate 89 in Lebanon.
But the facilities the Border Patrol envisioned in the report would be far more substantial than what local residents experienced in White River Junction in the years after Sept. 11. Documents suggest the agency envisioned an 8- to 12-acre site, with a primary station and several outbuildings, along with holding cells, an armory, a kennel, a workout room, a fuel station, an “alien property storage” area and a “lead intelligence office.”
The Border Patrol whittled the list of prospective locations for the checkpoints down to seven sites on I-89, and five on I-91, in studies that included topographical maps and aerial images, road maps and pictures from the roadside.
Exact locations and other key details were redacted by federal authorities — it is unclear if any Upper Valley towns made the final list. However, the Border Patrol studied 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.
The Hartford rest area on I-91, where the Border Patrol had been operating the checkpoint, was rebuilt by the state last year. The area also includes a large new sewer line and adjoins a National Guard armory.
The report said heavy traffic volume around the “White River Junction/Hanover/Lebanon,” region means “the checkpoint site should avoid these areas.” The report also said the area between Burlington and Montpelier also presented traffic concerns.
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that, while he was uncertain if the Border Patrol was planning to build a permanent checkpoint, Leahy has consistently questioned officials from the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Border Patrol, about their plans.
“Confusion over the years from the agency about exactly what their intentions are is exactly the reason that Sen. Leahy has continued to press this matter and ask this question at virtually every Judiciary Committee and Appropriations Committee hearing when a (Department of Homeland Security leader) or others are testifying, and he has done this for years,” Leahy spokesman David Carle said. “They have continued to assure him that there are no plans for a permanent checkpoint, but he is continuing to press them on this.”
In a prepared statement, the agency said:
“With the ever-changing smuggling methods by criminals, permanent and temporary checkpoints conducted by (Border Patrol) effectively serve to intercept consolidated smuggling loads before they reach America’s neighborhoods and city streets. Border Patrol traffic checkpoints are a critical enforcement tool for carrying out the mission of securing our nation’s borders against transnational threats. Checkpoints deny major routes of egress from the borders to smugglers intent on delivering people, drugs and other contraband to the interior of the United States and allow the Border Patrol to establish an important second layer of defense.”
The documents Barrett obtained were released last week as part of a broader ACLU report on surveillance activities that have occurred in Vermont since the Sept. 11 attacks. During a news conference at the Statehouse, the organization said Vermont had become a “surveillance state,” due in part to $100 million in grants that the Department of Homeland Security has given state and local police departments since 9/11.
The Border Patrol claims 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 Ocean.
A pending bill in Congress could potentially render moot some of the concerns over a permanent checkpoint, at least in the Upper Valley.
The immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in June includes a provision, championed by Leahy, which would limit 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 provision would also cut from 25 miles to 10 miles the distance from the border in which border agents can search private property without a warrant.
“The wide latitude in current law for setting up checkpoints far from our borders has led to maximum hassles of law-abiding local residents, with minimal value to border enforcement,” Leahy said in June. “In Vermont it would be easy for anyone who crossed the border 100 miles back to avoid these checkpoints simply by using any of the many other roads that bypass the checkpoints. This is an intrusive practice for local residents, subjecting Vermonters to needless and pointless delays and questioning. It simply is not a productive use of border enforcement dollars. The wide leeway for accessing private property without permission or warrants is also excessive, and it should be limited.”
The immigration bill passed the Senate by a 68-32 vote, but it has languished in the U.S. House.
Mark Davis can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3304.