Courts & Corrections

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.

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Jasper Craven

About Jasper

Jasper Craven is VTDigger’s political reporter. A Vermont native, he first discovered his love for journalism at the Caledonian Record. He double-majored in print journalism and political science at Boston University, and worked in the Boston Globe’s Metro and Investigative units. While at the Globe he collaborated on Shadow Campus, a three-part investigative series focused on greed and mismanagement in Boston’s off-campus student housing market. The series was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
He also spent two years at MuckRock, a news sited dedicated to investigation and analysis of government documents. 

Craven covered Vermont’s U.S. Congressional delegation for the Times Argus in the summer of 2014, and worked as a Metro reporter for the Chicago Tribune before joining the staff of VTDigger.

Email: [email protected]

Follow Jasper on Twitter @Jasper_Craven

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  • Jay Eshelman

    Re: Ernst said Muslims were among those affected, a potential breach of the Constitution’s religious protections.

    Because this statement isn’t attributed to Lia Ernst as a direct quote, Jasper Craven’s reporting that “Muslims were among those affected” implies that people with other religious affiliations also suffered instances of harassment. Will Mr. Craven and VT Digger let us know the religious standing of the other plaintiffs?

  • Matt Young

    The Vermont chapter of the ACLU lost all credibility with me when I contacted them about a Vermont public school issue, they didn’t even send a return email. I guess our issue didn’t fit their politics or narrative.

    • Andi Rosin

      Several years ago the ACLU defended Rush Limbaugh. Many years ago they supported the rights of a New Nazi group to march in Skokie, Ill., a town with a large Jewish population.

      While I find Limbaugh and Neo Nazi organizations disgusting, the ACLU supported both of them because of free speech rights.

      They have supported many other, right leaning people over the years.

      You can google for yourself to see this.

      The only, “politics or narrative’ the ACLU has is to defend free speech, no matter if the person or group being denied free speech are left or right or middle.

      As to why they did not answer your claim, I can only say that they must get thousands of complaints and there is no way they can take on all of them.

      They take on the ones that they think are the worst and that they believe are truly unconstitutional.

      I did not like when they supported the Neo Nazi group, and you do not like that they are challenging the travel ban.

      But to say that the ACLU has only a political agenda is simply wrong.

      Please google it for yourself and you will see I am telling the truth.

      • Matt Young

        Actually the ACLU has a (stated) mission “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” The fact the ACLU has defended neo-nazi groups does not mean they are not politically or agenda motivated. The fact that you try to liken Rush Limbaugh and neo nazi groups is pretty gross.

        • David Bell

          Actually, it is strong evidence that they maintain a bipartisan agenda defending those who fit a specific profile regardless of political view.

        • Andi Rosin

          Matt Young, I was not trying to LINK Limbaugh and Neo Nazi groups. I was simply responding to your comment that the ACLU has a political agenda meaning they only support the, “left”. Limbaugh is not the left and neither are the New Nazis. My point was not to link them but to show two non-left groups or individuals that the ACLU has defended in the past.

    • sandybettis

      What was the issue?

  • Edward Letourneau

    I wish the ACLU would do something for the greater good, like challenge the constitutionality of the Vermont education tax system. Now that would bring the organization respect.

    • Dennis Works

      Edward Letourneau: I wish people would learn what the ACLU does “for the greater good”. It’s so easy for people to denigrate the ACLU without actually learning what they do for the greater good on a daily basis. There can be no greater effort to that end then to be a relentless watchdog over government to ensure it does not overstep its constitutional authority and thus restrict our rights as citizens.

      • Steve Baker

        Love the saying “the greater good”…Hmmm where have we heard that before?

        • Dennis Works

          Steve Baker: Ummm… the phrase “the greater good” has been uttered many times by people of different political persuasions. In this particular instance I was answering Edward Letourneau’s wish that “the ACLU would do something for the greater good…”

          • David Bell

            Dennis, you beat me to it… astounding Steve honestly did not follow this.

          • Steve Baker

            I wonder if the ACLU pays well for advocacy

      • Matt Young

        Oh good, I will wait for their call

      • Matt Young

        Then they must have buried their heads in the sand over public education

      • Donna Boutin

        ACLU is a relentless watchdog over government since when?? Where was the ACLU when the Vt government over stepped the Vt Constitution, where was the ACLU when obama by pass the Congress? Where is ACLU on the 2nd amendment when obama was trying to take away our rights? Where was ACLU when the couple were sued for not making a damn wedding cake for a gay couple..The couple had tons of rights but not the owners.. Maybe ACLU were good yrs and yrs ago but not anymore..Seems to me that illegals from all over have more rights then American Citizens..

  • Steve Baker

    Lia Ernst and the ACLU continue to be on the wrong side of the American taxpayer, US law, in common sense. But then again, is that surprising given the ACLU’s history.
    Imagine if they put the same amount of time and effort into fighting our opiate crisis or corruption in state and federal government? After all as a corrupt unethical government exploit it’s citizens it takes our civil rights away.

    • Dennis Works

      Steve Baker: Please explain how the ACLU is “on the wrong side of the American taxpayer, US law, in (sic) common sense.” The ACLU fights for the legal rights and freedoms of ALL individuals, not just those on the left or those on the right or somewhere in between. Perhaps you would prefer if the federal government overstepped its constitutional authority without challenge or consequences? And where do you get the idea that it is the ACLU’s business to fight our drug problems? That is the responsibility of federal, state, and local governments, not the ACLU.

      • Steve Baker

        Where was the ACLU when Obama’s DOJ sued Arizona? Don’t tell they fight for ALL individuals. They certainly didn’t fight for ALL the Individuals that were targets of a weaponized IRS nor are they fighting to protect James Rosen and Sharyl Attkisson rights against government wire tapping. Oh ya, I don’t remember the ACLU standing in line to bring suit against US Citizens deliberately killed with Drone Strikes.
        The ACLU goes out of their way to ignore US immigration laws. Those laws protect the US taxpayer.
        “The ACLU will assure Muslim clerics and imams the right to pray on
        planes and at work, fight for an atheist’s rights to remove a cross, stand beside
        pro-abortionists, help illegal aliens cross our borders, while at the same time fight to remove bibles, American flags, bully sports teams from a moment of silence, and remove mangers at Christmas.

        And IMHO rather them defend criminals (ACLU sued on behalf of 3 high-risk sex offenders, including a
        rapist and a female accomplice to rape and sodomy complaining that
        wearing GPS monitors was embarrassing, sometimes painful and an invasion
        of privacy) the ACLU should help protect US citizens.

        • Dennis Works

          Steve Baker: You’re not even fishing. You’re sitting in a rowboat waiting for the fish to jump into your boat. I’m not willing to oblige your fantasy. The ACLU has defended the rights and viewpoints of “conservative” people and causes many times. Read up on the ACLU and the Confederate flag, the Washington Redskins, Rush Limbaugh, Chick-fil-A, the Westboro Baptist Church, the Tea Party, and many others. Do a little research – then get back to me.

          • Dan DeCoteau

            If you are addressing Mr. Baker perhaps you should use your real last name.

          • David Bell

            Or perhaps you should address the point rather than the name of the person making it.

          • Dan DeCoteau

            If the person making the comment is using a fake name they should be banned from the comments because those are the rules. People hiding behind masks and using fake names are being deceptive. Are these the people you would trust?

          • Dennis Works

            Dan DeCoteau: I am using my real name. But just for arguments sake, let’s assume I’m not. So what? Did you know that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers (used to promote the ratification of the Constitution) under the pseudonym “Publius”? But, I assure you, I am using my real name… as if that has anything to do with the article or the comments.

          • Dan DeCoteau

            I’m betting you are either being deceptive or your other name is Dennis Austin. You have the same avatar, writing style and ideology. We used to go back and forth on issues in another thread. I may be wrong but the coincidence is fairly strong. If I am wrong I apologize. If I am correct please come out from behind the curtain. Honesty is the best policy!

          • Dennis Works

            Dan DeCoteau: All I can tell you is that Dennis Works is indeed my real name, and that I am in full compliance with VTDigger’s commenting policy. There are people who post on VTDigger who know me and can vouch that it is my real name. If you don’t believe it, well, I can’t help that.

      • Matt Young

        Then why doesn’t the ACLU fight the big education monopoly?

        • Dennis Works

          Matt Young: Please explain to me what specific CONSTITUTIONAL issue you are referring to when you ask “why doesn’t the ACLU fight the big education monopoly?”

          • Matt Young

            The right to a free and appropriate education, the right to not be unlawfully restrained, the right to not have medications pushed onto a child, the right to not have the teachers union harm children for political reasons. I’m sure these don’t fit into your definition or narrative.

      • Dan DeCoteau

        Where has the government overstepped it’s authority in this case? Presidents prior to Trump have done the same thing over and over again. Obama, Bush and Clinton used the same authority to block people from certain countries.

        • David Bell

          He does not have the right to ban people for having the wrong religion; no President does.

  • Dominic Cotignola
  • Lester French

    Please show me where the Constitution protects people who are not citizens.

    • Dennis Works

      Actually, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled for over 100 years, in several different cases, that aliens (legal OR illegal) have many of the same rights and equal protections as U.S. citizens as long as they are within the territory of the United States. Some of those cases are ‘Yick Wo v. Hopkins’ (1886) (14th Amendment), ‘Wong Wing v. U.S.’ (1896) (5th and 6th Amendments), and ‘Plyler v. Doe’ (1982) (14th Amendment). As the U.S. Supreme Court is the final arbiter of all things constitutional, then it means that aliens (legal OR illegal) have many of the same constitutional rights as citizens.

      • Steve Baker

        As the U.S. Supreme Court is the final arbiter of all things constitutional, then it means we won’t hear any arguments about the SCOTUS going forward?

        • Dennis Works

          Steve Baker: I’m sorry, but I don’t understand your point… if there is one. You asked about the constitutionality of protecting people who are not citizens. I answered your question. Where you are heading now is questionable.

    • JohnGreenberg

      “Please show me where the Constitution protects people who
      are not citizens.”

      From 1st, 4th, 5th, and 14th amendments to the US constitution, as interpreted repeatedly and for centuries by the US Supreme
      Court. James Madison: “as they [aliens], owe, on the one hand, a temporary obedience, they are entitled, in return, to their [constitutional] protection and advantage.” For various case citations, see

  • carolyn bates

    Thank you for reporting on this issue. ACLU was the first to get Trump’s ban stopped in its tracks. No one organization should be responsible for all of our problems.
    Others are better working with opioid crises.

  • Will Workman

    “Ernst said Muslims were among those affected, a potential breach of the Constitution’s religious protections.”
    Not sure I understand this. Muslims were AMONG those affected; it seems that it would only be unconstitutional if ONLY Muslims were affected. Or is the ACLU claiming it is only constitutional if NO Muslims are affected? Or perhaps the border agents asked the religious affiliation of border crossers?
    As stated, this seems without merit, as is the claim that some citizens were afraid to cross the border. Either ACLU is on a fishing expedition, or they are just trying to gum up the works.

  • Brian Hanbridge

    18 Baker/Works back & forth comments, on and on, for one story. VTDigger, is that the appropriate role served by your reader comments section ?

    • We have considered limits such as per story, per day or per week, but most readers are against that. What do you think?

      • Dennis Works

        Cate Chant and Brian Hanbridge: Obviously, I am against such limits. The back-and-forth is a useful and educational exercise – for all sides. Personally, at times I learn something during these discussions – if nothing more than another person’s point-of-view, their thinking process, and the like. I hope others do as well. Thank you for the forum.

      • JohnGreenberg

        Back and forth is called dialogue and it often helps clarify a point, which is why Plato used it millennia ago. Those who don’t want to read these back and forths can skip them.

      • Jay Eshelman

        Ms. Chant: I too am against limits. And I’d be even more satisfied if you would print all of the comments instead of censoring some of them, as you have mine.

  • Phil Greenleaf

    The firm of Young, Baker, DeCoteau and Letourneau knows full well that the ACLU has one bipartisan mission. The commentary, as usual, is simply volunteer work for the amorphous “League of Forgotten Men” and pretty much describes why they were forgotten.