Immigration checkpoint near Dartmouth sparks concerns from community

by Kyle Mullins and Mary Winters | 9/7/19 1:26pm

Federal immigration officers operated a checkpoint on I-89 outside of Lebanon on Thursday, surprising residents, attracting strong criticism from immigrant rights groups and campus organizations and prompting an official rebuke from the College. 

The checkpoint, set up by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents between exits 18 and 19, was the closest to Dartmouth in recent years, according to a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, and it coincided with the arrival of first-year international students on campus for pre-orientation activities, which began on Friday. 

The College condemned the checkpoint as “unnecessary” in a press release Thursday evening, stating that the checkpoint “sends a message at odds with the open and welcoming values of an institution like Dartmouth.” The statement also noted that Dartmouth wishes to maintain “an environment free of harassment and discrimination based on immigration or citizenship status.”

The checkpoint was conducted weeks after the August arrests of 18 people without documentation in the Upper Valley. Those individuals were arrested between July 29 and Aug. 1, when CBP conducted patrols in the area. Other similar sweeps and subsequent arrests have taken place in New Hampshire and Vermont throughout the summer, with over 20 people being arrested in a series of sweeps in the Lebanon area this past week. 

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, expressed concern about the proximity of the checkpoint to Dartmouth’s campus as well as broader issues with its establishment in response to a request for comment. 

“These checkpoints are against our core values of liberty in New Hampshire,” Bissonnette wrote in an email statement to The Dartmouth, alleging that 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 added that the ACLU is investigating how the checkpoint was conducted. 

CBP spokesperson Steven Bansbach wrote in an email to The Dartmouth that checkpoints are “a vital tool for the U.S. Border Patrol’s national security efforts.” 

“The United States Border Patrol (USBP) carefully selects checkpoint locations along routes of egress from the immediate border to maximize border enforcement while minimizing effects on the travelling public,” Bansbach wrote. 

When asked for comment, Dartmouth College Republicans chairman Daniel Bring ’21 directed The Dartmouth to a statement on the group’s Facebook page, which condemns the College for a “flagrant disregard for the rule of law in favor of what they call ‘open and welcoming values.’” 

“The Dartmouth College Republicans support legal immigration to this great country, but those that cut the line and cheat the process should not be rewarded or protected for doing so,” the statement reads, also noting the group’s support for the “men and women of law enforcement.”

The checkpoint operated one day before the start of the College’s International Student Pre-Orientation Program, a week-long series of events intended to help newly-arriving international students prepare for life at Dartmouth. 

It appears, however, that the stop did not impact any students coming to campus on Dartmouth Coach busses. Benjamin Blunt, vice president of the Dartmouth Coach, confirmed that none of their buses passed through the checkpoint because their route takes them off of I-89 before the location that CBP had set up its roadblock. 

“There were no interactions,” Blunt said. “I can tell you that CBP has never pulled over a Dartmouth Coach bus.”

Representatives from Advance Transit, a free bus service in the Upper Valley often used by Dartmouth community members, could not be reached for comment. The Greyhound bus service, which operates in the Upper Valley, also could not be reached for comment. 

While the establishment of the checkpoint in a rural area far from the Canadian border may seem out of place, federal law says that CBP can establish such checkpoints “within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States.” “Reasonable distance” is defined as 100 air miles from any external border, including the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well as the Gulf of Mexico.

Dartmouth noted this wide reach in its statement, pointing out that Dartmouth is “far from an international border.” Bissonnette similarly noted that Lebanon is “approximately 100 driving miles from the Canadian border.”

At these checkpoints, CBP can pull over any vehicle without reasonable suspicion and detain the driver for a brief period of time, generally defined as 15 minutes.

Kira Kelley, an immigration lawyer and chair of the Vermont chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, said that anyone questioned by CBP should remain silent.

“[Border Patrol is] not allowed to do anything other than pull you aside and detain you briefly, which again, should be 15 minutes,” Kelley said.

Kelley said she was stopped for nearly 30 minutes when she drove through the checkpoint on Thursday and was held up by agents. She also said that she knows of people who were stopped for as long as 45 minutes.

She said that she did not answer any questions asked by the agents and claimed that agents are allowed to lie to detainees about what they can and cannot do.

“They’re gonna lie to you to make you think that they can [do things they cannot], and that, unfortunately, is totally legal,” Kelley said.

Asma Elhuni, an immigrant rights activist and lead organizer at the United Valley Interfaith Project, said that her organization put up a sign on the highway before the checkpoint to warn drivers to exit the highway to avoid the checkpoint. She added that the agents at the stop knew her by name because she has been through so many checkpoints in New Hampshire. 

Elhuni said she believes she experienced racial profiling the second time she went through the Lebanon stop. 

“I went into the checkpoint, sitting in the back seat, with a person that is black,” Elhuni said. “And when we entered … his windows are shaded, so they didn’t know it was me in the back — and right away, they put two fingers up, and they say, ‘two, two,’ running, as if to say ‘get this car.’” 

After being stopped and questioned, they were allowed through the checkpoint, according to Elhuni. A video posted to Elhuni’s Facebook page shows her and the agents trading accusations of harassment.

Kelley also said that she believes racial profiling occurred at the Lebanon checkpoint. 

Hanover police captain Mark Bodanza said that neither he nor police chief Charlie Dennis received notification that CBP was conducting operations in the Upper Valley, and that they have not been reached out to by members of the Hanover community. 

“We haven’t received any calls from members of our community in regards to any criminal investigation, or concerns over the police department’s involvement, or any members of our community being impacted by enforcement by Border Patrol,” Bodanza said. 

According to the Valley News, Lebanon police chief Richard Mello said that Lebanon police were not involved in immigration enforcement operations but that they had been notified of CBP’s presence beforehand. New Hampshire department of safety strategic communications administrator Michael Todd said in a voicemail message that the state police have “no operational or planning involvement with regard to [immigration enforcement] stops.”

Dartmouth’s Office of Visa and Immigration Services and Office of Pluralism and Leadership did not respond to requests for comment. The ACLU of Vermont directed requests for comment to the ACLU of New Hampshire.