Remote Border Checkpoint In Vermont Draws Criticism

May 7, 2019

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agents set up a vehicle stop in the Lake Champlain Islands over the weekend.  The checkpoint, just over 25 miles from the Canadian border as the crow flies, was the first to be conducted in a decade in Vermont, is prompting criticism from civil liberties advocates.

Swanton sector border patrol agents conducted an immigration checkpoint Saturday on the causeway that connects the Lake Champlain Islands at  South Hero to the Vermont mainland.

Alerts on social media sites like Facebook were quick to note that the Border Patrol was stopping cars and asking citizenship questions. American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont Staff Attorney Lia Ernst says they found out about it because their executive director encountered it on his  way to Montreal. “It’s my understanding that CBP (Customs and Border Protection) hasn’t set up a checkpoint in Vermont for about a decade and there’s no reason for it to do so now. Vermonters are clear that they want to be free to go about their business and not be subjected to these sorts of invasive stops and delays and questioning when there’s no suspicion whatsoever that they have done anything wrong. This is counter to the very idea of a free and open society.”

Migrant Justice was among those alerting travelers to the checkpoint.  Staff member Will Lambek says such remote border checkpoints are a violation of civil liberties.   “They’re an intrusion on people’s lives and in intent and effect they’re designed to put immigrant communities in fear of their safety and are part of this unconscionable policy of mass deportation.  There are many dairy farms in Grand Isle County and farm workers regularly use that route and so this really is something that is disruptive.”

Customs and Border Protection Northeast Regional Press Officer Michael McCarthy emailed a statement noting that immigration checkpoints are routinely conducted across the country:  “Enforcement actions away from the border are within the jurisdiction of U.S. Border Patrol …. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed U.S. Border Patrol’s authority to lawfully stop vehicles, without suspicion, at checkpoints away from the border to determine the citizenship of its occupants, finding that such checkpoints are consistent with the Fourth Amendment.”

Lia Ernst says travelers can assert certain rights if they encounter such a checkpoint.  “Paramount among them is you have the right to remain silent. You don’t need to answer questions. You also don’t have to consent to a search of your vehicle. CBP can’t search your car without consent unless they have a warrant or probable cause.  Thirdly I would say people always have the right not to be racially profiled. That’s a violation of the equal protection clause.  It’s my understanding that our Congressional delegation had been briefed and told to expect an increase in the number of checkpoints set up in Vermont. So although I very strongly hope that this is not the beginning of that threatened increase we’re obviously going to keep an eye on it and keep making sure that people know what their rights are.”

In June 2018, Vermont U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy introduced the Border Zone Reasonableness Restoration Act to reduce the allowable remote checkpoint distance from 100 miles to 25 miles. Senator Bernie Sanders is a co-sponsor. Vermont Congressman Peter Welch is sponsoring the measure in the House.

No arrests or seizures were made during the weekend checkpoint in Vermont.