Editorial: Immigration checkpoint policy is un-American

  • A U.S. Border Patrol agent checks a car on the I-93 southbound lane on Wednesday, September 28, 2017 south of the Route 175 exit south of Lincoln. Geoff Forester

Published: 7/8/2018 9:01:37 AM

Nations need to control their borders. Most Americans agree on that. But that doesn’t mean that their residents want to suffer surprise roadblocks, delays, and like characters in a World War II movie, interrogations by armed federal agents. Show our papers? At the border, sure, that’s to be expected. Far from the border, say in Woodstock, N.H., where the U.S. Border Patrol recently set up an immigration checkpoint 90 miles from Canada? No thank you.

A decade ago, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint far from the border, ordered out of his car and, as he related the experience, asked to prove that he was a citizen, something Border Patrol agents can’t legally demand that someone do in order to continue on their way. Leahy, as relayed by a reporter for The Nation, asked on what authority the agent stopped him. According to Leahy, the agent pointed to his gun and said, “That’s all the authority I need.”

Agents, according to encounters recorded by citizens using cellphones and shared with the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, are still misrepresenting the law by telling motorists and their passengers that they are required to state their status and illegally detaining travelers who, as is their right, decline to show their papers or answer agents’ questions. The ACLU also saw evidence of illegal searches carried out by agents and sued to put a stop to them.

Since 1953, another period of mass fear and paranoia in America’s history, Customs and Border Patrol agents have had – thanks not to Congress but the executive branch – the authority to set up checkpoints anywhere within 100 air miles of the nation’s border. Since those borders include America’s coastlines and the Great Lakes, that authority covers the entirety of several states, including New Hampshire, and about two-thirds of America’s population, making all of their residents subject to temporary detention, interrogation and in some cases, warrantless searches.

Aggressive enforcement in the name of safety and national security is the zeitgeist of these Trumpian times. That can, and apparently has, led to a disrespect for the law and constitutional principles on the part of some in law enforcement. That’s more than unfortunate. It’s a danger to democracy.

Sen. Leahy, along with Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat, have introduced legislation to limit the authority of the Customs and Border Patrol agency to set up roadblocks or enter private property other than homes in search of illegal immigrants, to within 25 air miles of a border without special dispensation. Passage of the bill will do virtually nothing to compromise public safety. According to the federal General Accounting Office, the checkpoints achieve relatively little for the effort expended and divert resources from work that would better protect the public.

The bill will save thousands of citizens and legal visitors the delay, hassle and even fear and intimidation the checkpoints create. Passage will make the nation feel more like America and not like a Soviet state or banana republic. It may take a new Congress to make the bill law, but a new Congress, one with members willing to compromise for the public good, is just what the nation needs. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan have not, as far as we know, joined forces with Leahy and Murray. What are they waiting for?

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