Vermont ACLU sues border agency over secrecy on travel ban

Lia Ernst

Lia Ernst is a lawyer with the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. File photo by Alan J. Keays/VTDigger

The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit Wednesday seeking documents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection detailing how President Donald Trump’s travel ban was implemented on the northern border.

The suit was joined by five other New England ACLU affiliates. It seeks records from heavily trafficked transportation hubs throughout the region, including airports in Burlington, Boston and Bangor, Maine.

Lia Ernst, staff attorney for the ACLU of Vermont, said the state chapter has received about 10 reports of travelers improperly harassed and turned away at Vermont’s northern border crossings. Ernst said Muslims were among those affected, a potential breach of the Constitution’s religious protections.

Highgate border crossing

U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s border crossing in Highgate. Photo courtesy of CBP

Ernst added that a number of the complaints have come from the crossing in Highgate but said these anecdotal reports can’t possibly indicate whether one crossing is more problematic than another.

Ernst said that in addition to reports of harassment, Vermont’s ACLU chapter has received inquiries from American citizens who “are afraid to travel to Canada for fear they will be subjected to poor treatment.”

While a number of airports, including Boston’s Logan International, were criticized for inappropriately holding and questioning travelers during the rollout of Trump’s first executive order banning certain travelers, Ernst said no such complaints have been filed with the ACLU regarding the Burlington airport.

The suit comes after ACLU chapters across the country filed public records requests Feb. 2 with Customs and Border Protection seeking information regarding the execution of Trump’s two travel bans, both of which have been effectively struck down in federal courts for discriminating based on religious identity.

The agency is required by federal law to respond to requests within 20 days. After that deadline elapsed with no communication, 13 lawsuits were filed across the country.

“CBP has a long history of ignoring its obligations under the federal Freedom of Information Act — a law that was enacted to ensure that Americans have timely access to information of pressing public concern,” said Mitra Ebadolahi, a border litigation staff attorney with the ACLU of San Diego, in a statement. “The public has a right to know how federal immigration officials have handled the implementation of the Muslim bans, especially after multiple federal courts have blocked various aspects of these executive orders.”

In late January, after Trump’s first ban was blocked, Democratic lawmakers and lawyers accused CBP agents of openly defying the court orders.

“The records we have requested will show how the Trump administration interpreted the language of the ban as well as the orders from federal courts prohibiting its enforcement,” said Ernst.

The documents could also strengthen immigration advocates’ case that the ban was explicitly meant to prohibit Muslims from entering the country. Trump’s original ban prohibited travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, none of which is known to have bred terrorists involved in recent attacks in America.

A recently leaked memo from the Department of Homeland Security asserted that citizenship was an “unlikely indicator” of a terrorist threat.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Maine, alleges that Customs and Border Protection violated the Freedom of Information Act by withholding the requested documents. It additionally asks for the documents to be processed expeditiously and that any fees or charges be waived.

Jasper Craven

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