U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested 25 people in checkpoint and related operations in the Lebanon area just after Labor Day weekend, prompting criticism and concerns of overzealous border enforcement in New Hampshire. This followed the arrests of 18 people for improper documentation earlier this summer in the same region.
The post-Labor Day stops tied up southbound traffic on Interstate 89 in Lebanon and included agents boarding buses to ask riders where they were from.
Protesters showed up during the stops, making accusations of a police state. The American Civil Liberties Union issued instructions on what officers could and could not legally ask. U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., asked Congress to curtail such activities to areas closer to actual borders. And former Democratic state Sen. Peter Burling got caught in the traffic while taking his wife to a doctor’s appointment.
“We’re going to steal money from all of the military and build a useless wall in the Southwest desert, and they put 20 guys out in the middle of the street to block traffic on 89 to do what?” he told the Valley News of Lebanon. “This is not protecting America’s borders. This is causing an inconvenience in the heart of a community.”
Thanks to President Trump’s supercharged rhetoric, this is the anger and response we can expect these days, even in New Hampshire, which shares a relatively short and mostly inaccessible border with Canada.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection office (CBP), which oversees the U.S. Border Patrol, can make traffic stops and the like without a warrant within 100 nautical miles of the U.S./Canada border. The I-89/I-91 corridors in New Hampshire and Vermont are logical points through which undocumented immigrants, human and drug smugglers and worse might travel, and Lebanon fits just within the allowed checkpoint zone.
The recent enforcement actions bring to the fore, sadly, how politicized border patrol work has become, even here. The fact is, regardless of one’s political stripe, there needs to be enforcement of borders and, until the past few years, U.S. Border Patrol officers, reporting to the agency’s Swanton, Vt., station, did their work with little uproar.
Swanton is the office that covers the Vermont, New Hampshire and northeastern New York border with Canada. And by border, at least in New Hampshire, we mean a ribbon of mostly remote terrain in Coos County with few human assets; mostly sensors, aerial and other technology monitoring crossings. It is not easy geography to keep an eye on. It’s not an uncommon sight to see border officers patrolling remote back roads, campgrounds and trails in the Great North Woods.
Swanton, these days, is not a sleepy station; according to NBC News, in 2018, there were 548 arrests for illegal crossings, up from 165 in 2017. This spike, according to the report, comes at least in part from the sense that it’s easier to illegally enter the United States from Canada than along the southern border. It wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude that the Trump administration’s focus on illegal immigration is a driver in the uptick, too.
But we should be cautious about drawing similarities between the controversial tactics employed by CBP along the border with Mexico and what occurs here.
Tools regularly and historically used by Border Patrol agents in this region include traffic stops. Agents have in the past staged checkpoints near the I-89/I-91 intersection and elsewhere during the busy motorcycle weekends and at other times, usually resulting in numerous drug arrests.
Also, if one spends any time in the North Country, it’s common to witness Border Patrol officers working collaboratively with law enforcement in Coos, Grafton and Carroll counties. These same agents, working in New Hampshire’s northernmost — and geographically largest — town of Pittsburg regularly assist local and state police and state Fish and Game with search and rescue operations and, when needed, other law enforcement actions.
Understandably, many these days are hypersensitive and split politically by the issue of illegal immigration. However, let’s maintain perspective, that the tactics used to keep the border secure to our north are much the same as have been used long before President Trump sent us to our respective corners ready to come out fighting.