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Border Patrol vehicles await the bus in Canton.
Border Patrol vehicles await the bus in Canton.

Citizenship questions far from the border

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Across the North Country, border patrol road checkpoints where agents stop cars and ask passengers their citizenship have become a part of daily life. Today we have a story about another step in the creeping influence of homeland security inside the border.

It's now become commonplace for federal agents to board buses and trains across Upstate New York and ask passengers for proof of citizenship. The checks are sweeping up some drugs and illegal immigrants, but also people who are here legally. David Sommerstein reports.

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David Sommerstein
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It’s dark at the bus stop in Canton. Two border patrol cars idle and await the 8 o’clock from Syracuse.

The Adirondack Trailways bus rumbles in.

Hey, how’re ya doing?

A pair of border patrol agents greets the driver, then boards the bus. They ask each passenger, “are you an American citizen?”, then move on. Tonight, everyone checks out and the whole thing ends quickly.

This scene’s become increasingly common across New York as almost 2,000 more agents have been assigned to the northern border since September 11th. The Border Patrol asserts its authority to conduct checks like this within 100 air miles of the international border, including coastlines.

The policy’s been hard on international students in a region with dozens of universities. Take the case of a Chinese piano student who was detained from a bus two years ago.

He was handcuffed. He felt very threatened.

Bethany Parker-Goeke directs the international education office at SUNY Potsdam. She says the 20 year-old – who she can’t name for privacy reasons - was applying for a change in visa status, so he didn’t have his documents on him.

I had all his original, valid documents on my desk.

The student was held for four hours, then returned to campus. A few days later, federal agents were back to detain him again because his status was still up in the air. He spent almost a month in two county jails and one immigration detention center near Buffalo. Finally, says Parker-Goeke, he was released.

It was very disturbing to me because they had given him a jail nickname…”smart boy. I was just appalled to think that this international student had another…education…all separate that he really should not have had at all.

Because the student missed the first four months of the semester, he had to drop out and return to China. Parker-Goeke says his parents wouldn’t let him come back.

Parker-Goeke says another Chinese student in Potsdam was detained last year while doing field research in a swamp.

At the University of Rochester, international student services director Cary Jensen says thousands of his students have been questioned on the bus or train over the last few years, with more than a dozen detained.

I know there’s concerns of anti-terrorism and smuggling and we want to stop that stuff but in the process of trying to do that stuff we’re creating an unfriendly environment for the legitimate people who are here who we want to attract here.

Ordinary citizens are also subject to the document checks. In this 2008 video by a Syracuse University student, an African American man objects to the scrutiny while on a train in Rochester.

[video clip]

The Border Patrol wouldn’t do an interview for this story. But in an e-mailed statement, spokesman Rafael Levitre said agents use the checks to prevent smugglers from using public transportation to access the interior of the country.

Media reports say the checks have netted drugs and criminals. But civil rights advocates say they’re too intrusive.

We don’t live in a society where you have to carry your papers at all times.

Udi Ofer is a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. He says 97% of all New Yorkers live within the hundred mile zone, as so two-thirds of all Americans. Ofer says the border patrol is going far beyond the constitution’s requirement of individualized suspicion.

No one minding his own business should be subject to an internal document check for riding a bus in New York. Not only is it a violation of our privacy rights as Americans, but quite frankly, it’s a recipe for racial profiling.

The Border Patrol says foreign appearance is one factor among many in determining suspicion. Spokesman Rafael Levitre says the interviews are “consensual”. But SUNY Potsdam’s Bethany Parker-Goeke says her students don’t feel like they had the option to remain silent.

Based on the conversations I’ve had, it was ‘you talk or things are going to get worse.’

Congressman Bill Owens sits on the House Homeland Security Committee and supports beefing up the northern border. He says the border patrol is trying to strike a balance between stopping the bad guys and leaving everyone else alone.

It is a difficult balance to achieve. We want to make sure they’re not interfering with legitimate activities of business and individuals, but it is a necessary part of the law enforcement process.

Cary Jensen of the University of Rochester says if the citizenship checks are necessary, then they should be a subject of national dialogue first. He says they evoke the police state he experienced as a student behind the Iron Curtain in 1980.

That may be a little strong for some, but I think from the perspective of the people being checked and detained, that’s exactly how it feels. If that’s what we need to do to feel secure, then we’ll all do what we need to. But my fear here is that we’ve allowed that to kind of creep in to become that without consciously deciding that’s what we need to do.

Border patrol agents met last month with Jansen and other other international student specialists from across New York. Jansen says those talks were positive, but he still counsels his international students to keep their papers on them at all times.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein in Canton.

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