(This column by political columnist and news editor John Gregg was published in the Valley News on Aug. 2, 2017.)
More than a decade ago, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Border Patrol began running a traffic checkpoint along Interstate 91 southbound at the rest area in Hartford.
Federal officials were looking for undocumented immigrants and potential terrorists, but the main byproduct was aggravation for Upper Valley motorists who resented being randomly questioned by government agents so close to home.
This week, the Border Patrol — which says a federal court case has given it the authority to stop and question travelers in the United States within 100 miles of an international border — returned to the Valley, albeit in a slightly different fashion.
Two Border Patrol agents boarded a Greyhound bus that had just arrived at the White River Junction station from Boston at 2 a.m. on Tuesday, according to Danielle Bonadona, a Lebanon resident who was aboard the late-night bus.
“They wouldn’t let us get off,” she said. “They boarded the bus and told us they needed to see our IDs or papers.”
Bonadona, a 29-year-old American citizen who is an instructor in Dartmouth’s film and media studies department, said the agents spent about 20 minutes on the bus, which had roughly 20 passengers. The agents “only checked the IDs of people who had accents or were not white,” she said.
“They just asked me if I was American,” said Bonadona, who described herself as “Caucasian-presenting.” When passengers finally were able to leave, two women were at least temporarily held back while the agents checked their immigration status, said Bonadona, who left for home at that point.
Bonadona said she was aware of the 100-mile rule, but said the experience of being stopped and searched in White River Junction felt “pretty unconstitutional.”
“It would be one thing if we were at the Canadian border, sure, but stopping people going between domestic states is a little extreme,” she said.
Brad Brant, the special operations supervisor for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Swanton Sector, said the operation early Tuesday morning was a “transportation check operation,” as opposed to a traffic checkpoint. “We are making sure that anybody who illegally crossed the border and made it to that location and is using that transportation method doesn’t go any farther,” he said.
Brant said such patrols are common at bus stations in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Massena, N.Y., and also occur at Burlington’s terminal, but are “not common” in White River Junction. Within the Swanton Sector, which also includes Vermont and all of Grafton County and northern New Hampshire, Border Patrol continues to operate regularly an interior border checkpoint on Interstate 87 in upstate New York. “That’s the only big one we run (in the Swanton Sector). We run smaller ones in New York as manpower allows and intelligence dictates,” Brant said.
Asked if a traffic checkpoint was likely to return to the Valley, Brant said he didn’t know. He also said he could not immediately determine whether the two women Bonadona said were being questioned about their immigration status had been taken into custody.
News of the search of the bus didn’t sit well on Wednesday with Vermont’s two Democrats in Congress.
“I’m concerned whenever Vermonters are challenged or when their travels are routinely disrupted without any suspicion,” said U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who was a critic of the I-91 traffic checkpoint. “This seems to be a way to show action in light of President Trump’s executive orders. It is a waste of time and taxpayers’ money.”
And U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, a Norwich resident, also wasn’t happy, and like Leahy called for comprehensive immigration reform instead of the Border Patrol stops.
“Indiscriminate enforcement actions can have a chilling effect on law-abiding persons living in the shadows who want nothing more than to feed their families. Many have been in our country for years,” Welch said. “The correct course of action is for Congress to get off the sidelines and undertake a comprehensive reform of immigration laws that provides an appropriate path out of the shadows to citizenship.”