Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation Thursday that would reduce the area near international borders where federal agents are allowed to conduct warrantless searches.
United States Border Patrol agents have for years established temporary checkpoints along Interstate 91 in southern Vermont to ask motorists about their citizenship and where they’re going. Some are detained for additional questioning. Because the checkpoint is within 100 miles of the Canadian border, federal law allows agents to do that without a warrant.
Federal law gives authorities expanded power near the borders in order to protect national security. But Leahy said in a statement that a range of 100 miles from the border is unreasonable. The new legislation, cosponsored by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), would shrink the that zone from 100 to 25 miles.
"[T]his 100-mile zone is neither limited nor reasonable," Leahy said. "It includes marine borders. At present, it encompasses almost two-thirds of the population of the United States. This includes major cities such as New York, Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles, even the 'border town' of Richmond, Va., as well as entire states such as Maine, Delaware, and Florida."
Concerns about intrusive law enforcement practices have resurfaced under President Donald Trump, and the Border Patrol is exercising its authority to conduct searches far from the Canadian line. On May 18, Danielle Rochford of Burlington was on a Greyhound bus from Montréal that was delayed for a search at White River Junction.
She told Seven Days the following week that Border Patrol officers boarded the bus to ask passengers if they were American citizens or authorized to travel within the U.S.
“When they asked me if I was an American citizen, I said yes, and they didn’t request any identification from me at all,” Rochford said. “Anyone else who had an accent, including the person in the front row who was obviously white, was asked to show identification. I saw two people of color being escorted off the bus for further proof of identification,” she said, noting that both passengers returned about 15 minutes later.
Leahy, who was not available for an interview, said in the statement that Trump’s “aggressive yet wasteful” immigration enforcement tactics show that reforms are needed.
“Vermonters have rightly been concerned about these expanded border zone searches,” Leahy said. “They believe, as I do, that once inside our country the phrase ‘show me your papers’ does not belong inside the United States of America.”
The legislation would allow the Border Patrol to set up fixed checkpoints — those that stop every passing motorist for questioning — no more than 10 miles from the border. Current law allows the Border Patrol to enter and search private property, except houses, within 25 miles of the border. The bill seeks to limit that power to within 10 miles of the border.
“The 100-mile ‘border zone’ — and the similar 25-mile zone where many types of warrantless property searches are permitted — predates this current administration,” Leahy said in the statement, “but the actions of this administration have shown just how much we need legislation like this today.”