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Interstate 93 immigration checkpoint draws differing opinions

  • A U.S. Border Patrol agent checks a car on the Interstate 93 southbound lane on Wednesday south of Lincoln. GEOFF FORESTERMonitor staff

  • Jim and Sue Fernie originally from England stop at the Campton exit after getting a leaky tire. They both said that the stop was good idea and it didn’t inconveniece them at all. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor



Monitor staff
Thursday, September 28, 2017

At first, the sight is mundane: two orange signs – ROAD WORK AHEAD – straddling the southbound side of Interstate 93 in Woodstock.

But this isn’t a construction zone. The groups of patrolling Border Patrol officers, spread between police vehicles and traffic cones, make that quickly clear.

The stop is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint, and to the uninitiated, the scene cuts a jarring contrast against the vivid mountain landscape. The checkpoint, carried out 72 miles from the Canadian border by federal agents this week, is the latest in an escalation of border security efforts from a new presidential administration. The stops are fueled by increased funding and manpower, as well as “intelligence and operational needs,” according to a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman.

From Tuesday to Thursday, evidence of that escalation appeared in New Hampshire, where for the second time in two months officers stopped southbound vehicles to ask for citizenship.

The spectacle has brought backlash. Civil rights activists and immigration lawyers have criticized the stops as an unfair infringement on lawful activity. Others have raised economic concerns, pointing to the span of popular ski resorts and hiking trails spaced along the interstate.

Some locals, however, are largely brushing it off.

“I’ve had no reaction from the community officially,” said Butch Burbank, town manager of Lincoln, a bustling ski resort town several miles north of the checkpoint. “I haven’t heard a word.”

Once conducted around every year, the checkpoints ceased from 2012 to 2017, according to Woodstock police Chief Ryan Oleson; they were last held in late August. The stops have taken place at the same stretch of interstate for decades, Oleson added.

The process for many is efficient. About a dozen officers wandered the scene just north of Exit 30 in Woodstock, some with dogs trained to sniff drugs or human trafficking victims. Vehicles split into queues, attended to by agents in fluorescent vests.

“Both U.S. citizens?” an officer asked a Monitor reporter and photographer. A “yes” produced a quick: “Thank you, have a nice day.”

But the experience isn’t passive for everyone. Last month, 25 undocumented immigrants were picked up during the checks. The people were detained and then transferred to the Manchester Enforcement and Removal Operations Field Office, according to a Border Patrol spokeswoman. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement declined to provide names of those detained and their status is unknown.

For Carla Gericke, of the Manchester-based libertarian group Foundation for New Hampshire Independence, the stops are draconian and counterproductive.

“Obviously it’s extremely troubling,” she said Wednesday of the checkpoints. “New Hampshire relies on tourism, and having banana republic-like stops (will hurt that).”

But Burbank sees it differently.

“I suppose it’s a big deal for someone who’s got some reasons to not like it, but other than that, it’s not a big deal,” he said.

Burbank, the former police chief in Waterville Valley, said that he hadn’t heard complaints from local businesses regarding the checkpoints. “And I can tell you, this business community would say something,” he said.

Charyl Reardon, operations manager of the White Mountains Visitor Center in Woodstock, gave a shrug. The welcome center, at the start of the Kancamagus Highway, is a hot spot for passing tourists – license plates in the parking lot range from Maryland to Florida. The checkpoint, though, has not dampened turnout, she said.

Among the checkpoint’s side-focuses is narcotics. According to the Woodstock Police Department, 18 U.S. citizens were arrested, the majority for drug uses. Though local police officers don’t participate, the department is notified when drugs are found, and will send officers to make an arrest while suspects are held, according to Oleson.

On Thursday, that effort appeared to continue. A green sedan, trunk open, rested along a median. Agents pulled out white plastic trash bags, examining the contents slowly.

A spokeswoman said full details on immigration detentions and arrests will be released next week. But Patrick Asselin of Lincoln said the priority for agents should not be the citizenship check.

“There’s a drug problem here,” he said. “Not an immigration problem.”

Those who passed through the checkpoint were supportive of the effort, even if their experiences differed.

Kristina Frangos, a student at Plymouth State University originally from Beverly, Mass., said she first thought there was an accident on the road. But the process was speedy, she said.

Jim and Sue Fernie’s stop took slightly longer. The two are British citizens living in Hong Kong. After an officer asked for passports, the two pulled over to open the trunk. A second officer listened to the man’s accent and determined the passports unnecessary.

“We travel a lot, and we see a lot of border patrol checks, and this was entirely reasonable and appropriate, I think,” Jim Fernie said. “We don’t mind.”

A convenience store clerk in Lincoln who declined to give his name said he had no complaints with the process. The clerk, who originally moved to the U.S. from India and speaks with accented English, was asked if he was a U.S. citizen. He said yes.

“They said: ‘You’re a citizen?’ ” he recounted. He repeated yes.

The agents asked him when he became a U.S. citizen. He told them 2006.

Then they sent him on his way.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)