Border stops snag drugs, no terrorists
US tactics near Canada anger Vermont residents
| December 19, 2006
SWANTON, Vt. -- Security stops of cars in rural New England near the US border with Canada, which became more frequent after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, have yet to snare a single terrorist -- but they have contributed to a huge, unexpected increase in marijuana seizures, according to homeland security authorities.
The seizures, which soared from 419 pounds in 2000 to more than 3,000 pounds last year, have pleased the federal Department of Homeland Security but have angered Vermonters and civil libertarians, who say the more aggressive US Border Patrol checkpoints should not be used for everyday law enforcement.
Some Vermonters are complaining about the patrol's more aggressive tactics, especially the use of highway checkpoints as far as 100 miles from the border. They say the random checkpoints -- which stop all passing cars inside the state, even if they're not headed to or from the border -- can make driving within their state feel like being in Eastern Europe under communism.
"If they're decreasing personal civil liberties for these Keystone Kop exercises to catch drug smugglers, that's not a fair trade," said Keith Aten, a lawyer in Montpelier and a board member of the state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has blasted the use of interior Border Patrol checkpoints.
"I can't drive from one part of Vermont to another part without going through what is basically a border crossing," he said. The checkpoints on interstate highways within the state borders operated occasionally before Sept. 11 but became much more frequent as part of the overall build up of border security -- which included motion sensors, night-vision equipment, and more personnel.
Earlier this year, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who has been a proponent of more spending on the Border Patrol, said the highway checkpoint that frequently appears just south of White River Junction does "far more to harass law-abiding Vermonters than to protect their security."
But Homeland Security officials in Washington said the interior checkpoints, which are set up at random or in response to a specific threat, are a crucial second line of defense to augment tighter controls at the border itself. They point to the leap in drug seizures as evidence that the checkpoints are stopping illegal activity.
In a written response to questions from Leahy, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that the road stops are a "critical component" of border security measures and that they "increase the certainty of arrest of anyone attempting to illegally enter the United States."
In the interior checkpoints and at the border itself, the patrol has also snagged thousands of immigrants entering illegally from Canada, although that figure has not changed markedly since 2000, while the amount of drugs seized has skyrocketed.
At the checkpoints, which are located well inside the state to catch people who are in the country illegally or smugglers who made it across the border, agents question motorists about their citizenship status and sometimes search cars .
The White River Junction checkpoint, more than an hour's drive from the border, has snared $693,000 worth of marijuana and 721 illegal immigrants since 2003, border patrol officials said. But it's also the most controversial: Civil liberties groups complain that Border Patrol agents there typically stop minority drivers while waving white drivers through, and they say the checkpoint itself is an infringement on their rights.
Ross DeLacy, a spokesman for the Swanton station, said that the Border Patrol has altered its mission since Sept. 11 to focus more on counterterrorism than on typical border violations like illegal immigration and smuggling. But its interception of drugs since then has been so successful that smugglers are changing their tactics.
"One of the effects of having the increased manpower and technology on the border is that these organizations, whatever they're smuggling, people or narcotics, they're definitely organized," he said. In 2003, DeLacy said, authorities intercepted a helicopter dropping bales of drugs on a Vermont hillside after locals called the Border Patrol.
And in January 2004, the patrol caught two men driving a specially designed railroad car along a rarely used stretch of track that crosses the border. Authorities believe the men, who were dressed in white as camouflage against the snow, were heading back to Canada after making a drug delivery.
The Border Patrol has also confiscated more cash brought in illegally, which officials believe is usually linked to the drug trade or human trafficking. The amount of cash seized at the border rose from $580,000 in 2000 to $2.1 million this year; $10,000 is the legal limit of cash one can bring across the border.
DeLacy said criticism of the agency's changes was inevitable, and defended the patrol against accusations of racial profiling.
"It's law enforcement and there's always going to be people who don't like us for whatever reason," DeLacy said. "What we look for is people of foreign appearance. We're looking for people that are from a different country, and then when we talk to those folks we want to determine, are they or aren't they here illegally?"
After doubling its manpower since Sept. 11, the Border Patrol is expected to increase its ranks about 50 percent more by 2008 and install even more advanced technology on the border. Boeing won a contract worth more than $2 billion to build a "virtual wall" along the northern and southern boundaries, which, Chertoff said at an appearance with Boeing executives when the contract was announced in September, will allow authorities "to know when anybody or anything is crossing that border."
Some Vermonters said they appreciated the Border Patrol's effort. But Ken Blaisdell, the owner of a lamp shop in White River Junction, called the stops "pretty annoying," and said he doubted they were effective, since terrorists clever enough to sneak over the border in the first place wouldn't stumble into such an obvious trap.