Border Patrol returns with two checkpoints

A Border Patrol agent who asked not to be identified takes a motorist into custody Friday at the checkpoint on Interstate 89 near Exit 18 in Lebanon, N. H., for allegedly being in the country illegally after overstaying his visa. The man’s companion (left) who was not detained, said the men were truck drivers from Massachusetts returning home after a trip to Norwich.


By KATIE BETH RYAN VALLEY NEWS - Published: November 9, 2009

The interstate checkpoint operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol not only returned to the Upper Valley this week, it came back in a double dose: Federal agents were stopping cars yesterday and Thursday along Interstate 91 and Interstate 89.

Although the checkpoints previously provoked a range of complaints — some said they posed a threat to civil liberties while others decried them as a nuisance — a number of motorists interviewed yesterday said they weren't bothered in the least.

Chad Butler, a student at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., was headed to an out-of-state wedding and was a little confused by the traffic stop on the interstate.

"But I understand because they're just checking stuff out," he said.

For other people passing through the area, the border patrol stop, though a nuisance, was a reminder of the nation's safety protocols.

"I felt protected," said Haverhill, Mass.-bound Reid Grayson, of Burlington. "I don't think they're doing anything bad. I think they're doing something good."

The I-91 checkpoint, set up on the southbound lane in the Hartford rest area, became a familiar sight in the years after the World Trade Center attacks. The I-89 stop, in the southbound rest area in Lebanon between exits 19 and 18, has been in much less frequent use. The Upper Valley is under the jurisdiction of the Swanton, Vt., section of the Border Patrol, which set up both checkpoints on Thursday.

The checkpoints have drawn the ire of civil libertarians and have frustrated many Upper Valley commuters. In May, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called the checkpoints "a pain in the neck for Vermonters and others" during an oversight hearing for the Department of Homeland Security. He asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to look into whether the department's resources could be used more effectively at the border itself.

Mark Henry, a public information officer with the Border Patrol in Swanton, said that the goal of the checkpoints is to stop the flow of drugs, weapons and terrorist suspects to more urban areas.

"Our first priority is always terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. That's our first thing," said Henry. "Then after that, it's (illegal) immigration."

Henry said the stops are warranted based on surveillance. In a separate interview on Thursday, he said that drugs like ecstasy and marijuana have been uncovered at both the I-91 and I-89 checkpoints over the years.

The checkpoints, which the Border Patrol is authorized to set up within 100 aeronautical miles of the border, have been part of an ongoing focus on internal surveillance that increased after 9/11. Border Patrol officials have said that their continued operations are necessary to counter terrorist infiltrations and drug activity.

Yesterday, border patrol agents pulled over several vehicles, including a large rented truck containing three occupants heading back to Massachusetts after a trip to Norwich. One of the occupants was apprehended by agents, allegedly for overstaying his visa, while the other two men were released.

Though she wasn't pulled over, Peggy Stock of Royalton didn't mince words when it came to the checkpoint.

"It was a pain in the neck," she said. "If I had seen it, I would have gotten off at (exit) 19."

Stock, the former president of Colby-Sawyer College in New London, said that she understood the need to guard the U.S. border from illegal drug and human trafficking operations, but that arrests for marijuana possession concerned her.

"I think there are more important things they could be doing," she said.

Emergency vehicles are always allowed to pass through, "no questions asked," said Henry. He said that border patrol agents tend to look for certain irregularities in the cars, drivers and passengers coming through the checkpoints and in the time of day people are traveling.

"There can be as many reasons as there are cars pulled over," he said. "They observe the totality of the circumstances … based on their experience."

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