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

Rights advocates charge abuse in Upstate NY by U.S. Border Patrol

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Immigrant rights advocates and the New York Civil Liberties Union are accusing the Border Patrol of abusing its authority by questioning train and bus passengers about their citizenship, and for targeting people in the North Country and in towns miles away from any international crossing. Julie Grant reports.

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Reported by

Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

Being stopped and checked by border patrol agents has become somewhat commonplace in the North Country in recent years. David Sommerstein reported from the Canton bus station last year – as the 8 O’Clock arrived from Syracuse:

"The Adirondack Trailways bus rumbles in.  A pair of border patrol agents greets the driver then boards the bus. They ask each passenger, ‘Are you an American citizen?’  And then they move on.  Tonight, everyone checks out, and the whole thing ends quickly."

A new report by the New York University Immigrant Rights Clinic, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Families for Freedom analyzes border patrol checks like this, on buses and trains. Udi Ofer is an author of the report. He says they did a Freedom of Information Act request to look at Border Patrol arrests at the Rochester station, between 2006 and 2009:

"our findings paint a disturbing picture of an agency that believes it should be able to stop anyone at anytime and anyplace within 100 miles of the border and demand proof of their citizenship and immigration status."

The report finds that in recent years in northern, central, and western New York, armed border patrol agents have routinely boarded trains and buses, even those not near the border, to question passengers about their citizenship. 

In a video taken in 2008 by a Syracuse University student, an African American man objects to the Border Patrol’s scrutiny on a train in Rochester:

Border Patrol Agent:  "How are you doing sir?  I’m with the United States border patrol, can you please state your citizenship."

Man:  "What do I look like?"

BP:  "You know what, What does an American look like?"

Man:  "That’s a shame.  Do I look like I’m from Zimbabwe?"

BP:  "We are a true melting pot, sir.  We come in all shapes shapes and colors, and this is not about ethnicity or race."

Man:  "I’m from Los Angeles."

BP:  "Thank you, sir.  That makes you a United States citizen."

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol refused an interview for this story.  In an email statement, an agency spokesperson says it’s constantly reviewing and adjusting strategies to be more effective. 

The Border Patrol has asserted authority to conduct checks within 100 air miles of the international border.  But Ofer says that would include 97-percent of New York’s population.

Ofer says the Border Patrol defends this policy because U.S. citizens have a 4th amendment right to refuse to respond the border agents. 

"So when they board a train or a bus in the North Country in the middle of the night,  sometimes with a flashlight, walking down the aisle of a bus, glaring that flashlight at the face of a sleeping passenger, and asking that passenger, ‘Are you a U.S. Citizen?,’ the border patrol takes the position that citizen should be able to feel freely to say, ‘ I don’t want to answer that question,’ or to just ignore it. And that is a false assumption."

Ofer says the border patrol may do this in rural parts of the state, but he says they’d never get away with it on a subway in New York City.

"There would be an uproar in New York City. Rightfully so. And yet that’s exactly what’s happening in the North Country."

Border Patrol has reportedly stopped routine checks recently in favor of intelligence-led checks.  The agency says its mission is to improve border security and its situational awareness.

But Ofer says the border patrol's aggressive and biased tactics have little to do with protecting the border.  He says we don’t live in a country where people have to carry proof of citizenship.

"The bottom line is, upstate NY is not a constitution-free zone.  The border patrol takes an extremely broad view of its mission, and one that would disturb most Americans, who expect to be able to go about their daily lives without having to prove their citizenship status to armed government agents."

The New York Civil Liberties Union wants the Border Patrol to stop entering domestic trains and buses, unless it has specific suspicion of an illegal border crossing.  It wants the Patrol to stop any use of arrest-based performance measures for its agents.  And it plans to issue educational material, so New Yorkers know their rights when faced with border agents.


Official Response: NCPR requested an interview with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol for this story.  This is the text of the email response we received from Jenny Burke of the Office of Public Affairs:

Here is the statement, attributed to a CBP spokesperson:

"As is the case with any law enforcement agency, the Border Patrol is constantly reviewing and adjusting strategies in order to improve operational effectiveness.

"Headquarters provides guidance to sectors including ways in which sectors may refine methods to better manage risk and mitigate threats facing their Areas of Operation (AOR).

"Additional resources and manpower along the northern border in recent years have improved border security and our situational awareness.

"Local field commanders in the sectors analyze intelligence pertaining to threats, risks and vulnerabilities facing their AOR's on a daily basis and resources are deployed to mitigate these threats accordingly utilizing a variety of enforcement techniques.

"Intelligence driven transportation checks are one of many  tactics utilized to address emerging threats."

Jenny L. Burke
Field Branch Chief – Northern/Coastal
Media Relations Division, Office of Public Affairs
U.S. Customs and Border Protection

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