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Border Patrol running checkpoint on Interstate 89 in Lebanon

  • Border Patrol agents stop traffic along I-89 south in Lebanon on Thursday. Agents were stopping cars and asking occupants if they were U.S. citizens. Jennifer Hauck / Valley News

Published: 9/5/2019 2:10:33 PM

Federal immigration officials were conducting a Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 89 southbound in Lebanon between exits 19 and 18 on Thursday.

Lebanon police were not involved, Lebanon police Chief Richard Mello said, but Border Patrol agents notified his agency within the last week that a checkpoint would take place.

Mello said he had no details about the checkpoint, but that he was “assuming” agents were stopping vehicles to ask for people’s immigration status.

“I don’t know their procedure,” Mello said.

Each car in both lanes on the southbound side of the interstate was being stopped by one of 20 or so agents. A reporter and photographer who went through the checkpoint said an agent asked: “Are you a U.S. citizen?” After they answered in the affirmative, the agent waved them through.

A message left for U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman about the operation wasn’t returned on Thursday morning.

Similar checkpoints have been held on I93 near the town of Woodstock on peak holiday weekends. During one of the first enforcement actions in 2017 after Donald Trump became president, federal agents with drug-sniffing dogs searched vehicles that may have been carrying illegal substances. Anyone found with drugs were turned over to local police and criminally charged. The ACLU of New Hampshire challenged those charges arguing the dogs amounted to an illegal warrantless search. A judge agreed to throw out the evidence and the charges against 18 individuals were dropped in 2018.

Inland border checkpoints as they are called – those positioned up to 100 miles of the physical border – have been in use since at least 1953, when a U.S. Department of Justice rule was passed authorizing the practice.

The number of arrests at the checkpoints in New Hampshire has varied widely in recent years from upwards of two dozen to zero.

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director at the ACLU of New Hampshire, said Thursday’s checkpoint appeared to be the first one so close to the Dartmouth campus.

“We are deeply disappointed to see checkpoints occurring anywhere in New Hampshire. They cause unnecessary delays and are a tax on time, as well as create a police state where law enforcement seize people without any suspicion that a crime has been committed,” Bissonnette said. “These checkpoints are against our core values of liberty in New Hampshire. We will continue to investigate how this checkpoint was conducted.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has argued the stops cut off undocumented travelers heading from Canada to Boston, and intercept drugs in the process.

“Enforcement actions away from the border are within the jurisdiction of U.S. Border Patrol and performed as a means of preventing smuggling organizations from exploiting unmonitored roads and highways to travel to the interior of the United States. These operations are a vital tool for the U.S. Border Patrol’s national security efforts,” the agency said in a statement in June.

A checkpoint hasn’t been held in Lebanon in Mello’s four-year tenure; federal immigration officials held such stops in the past along Interstate 91 in Hartford several years ago, and Border Patrol agents also boarded a Greyhound bus in White River Junction two years ago.

The checkpoint follows Border Patrol agents arresting 18 people without immigration documentation allowing them to enter or remain in the United States between July 29 and Aug. 1 in the Lebanon area.

The checkpoint also comes as the town of Hartford since early June has been discussing ways to provide increased protections for undocumented immigrants in town.

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