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Checkpoint Vermont: The Feds' Broad Reach Inside Our Borders


Published February 15, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 7, 2017 at 12:41 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
  • Kym Balthazar

Senate Bill 79, the "immigration legislation" crafted by Gov. Phil Scott's Civil Rights and Criminal Justice Cabinet, is on the fastest of tracks through the legislature. The Senate Judiciary Committee is likely to vote it out this week, with floor action coming next week.

The bill has been widely celebrated as a protection of Vermonters' rights. Media accounts refer to Scott's "defiance" of President Donald Trump's executive orders on immigration and, in the words of a headline, his "challenge to immigration enforcement."

But, in truth, S.79 is more flash than substance. 

The bill has two major provisions. The first would prevent the creation and sharing of data registries based on religion, national origin or immigration status. The second would bar local and county police agencies from making deals with the feds to assist in border or immigration enforcement. 

A worthy effort — especially coming from a Republican governor — but the bill's immediate impact is, well, negligible. 

"I don't think the bill right now changes any existing relationships between state and federal law enforcement," says Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson

Those "existing relationships" are deep and wide-ranging, and even without them the feds have substantial powers of their own. None of that would be affected by S.79.  

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has broad authority to operate anywhere within 100 miles of an international boundary or coastal body of water. That includes virtually all of Vermont except for the southwestern corner.

According to James Lyall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, USCBP has "enhanced search and seizure authority" within that zone.

"They are empowered to set up vehicle checkpoints," he says. "They are empowered to make so-called roving vehicle stops when they have reasonable suspicion of an immigration violation." 

That empowerment is limited, Lyall says, by Fourth Amendment protections from search and seizure. However, he adds, "That is something the agency sometimes neglects to mention or simply violates." 

Brad Brant, special operations supervisor for USCBP's Swanton sector, offers a bit of reassurance. "The border patrol in the past probably eight years has focused pretty much exclusively on cross-border activity," he says. 

That may be, but as recently as three years ago the Department of Homeland Security was planning to build a permanent checkpoint on Interstate 91 near White River Junction, slightly less than 100 miles south of the border. As a matter of fact, there were plans for interior checkpoints on every north-south freeway in the Northeast, from Interstates 95 to 87. The plans were shelved but could be dusted off pretty quickly if, say, the Trump administration boosts funding for DHS. 

Starting in 2003, the border patrol frequently conducted temporary checkpoints at an I-91 rest area in Hartford. According to contemporaneous media accounts, some locals called them "whiteness checkpoints" because so many minorities were subjected to questioning and search. 

"It was pretty disruptive," recalls Allen Gilbert, ACLU-Vermont's former executive director. "People who live in the area use I-91 on a daily, sometimes several times daily, basis."

Those checkpoints rarely, if ever, found any terror suspects.

"The ACLU did a Freedom of Information [Act] request on that," says Gilbert. "Almost all of the arrests were about drugs, and the majority of them were about marijuana." 

In 2013 the U.S. Senate approved comprehensive immigration reform legislation, including a provision authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that would have reduced the USCBP's operation zone to 25 miles from the border. At the time, Leahy called the broader zone "an intrusive practice" that "simply is not a productive use of border enforcement dollars." That bill died in the House, so the 100-mile zone remains on the books. 

The takeaway: Federal border agencies already have broad powers encompassing virtually all of Vermont. S.79 would not restrict their activities. Which is perhaps why the feds haven't said boo about the bill, even as some local and county law enforcement officials have raised concerns.

The most publicized aspect of S.79 is its limits on the authority of county and local agencies to strike their own deals with the feds to serve as deputized immigration enforcement officers, as one of Trump's executive orders contemplated. That's nice, but the "existing relationships" touted by Anderson are so deep that it's hard to imagine how a specific agreement with a local agency would provide much additional help. 

For starters, there's the fact that local, county and state law enforcement is thin on the ground in Vermont's northern-tier counties.

"The St. Albans Police Department is probably the only true 24-7 law enforcement in the area besides the border patrol," notes Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux Jr., a past president of the Vermont Sheriffs' Association. "There's times, you know, two in the morning, there's nobody out and [USCBP officers] may be the first responders." 

No wonder officials like Anderson and Marcoux so highly value their friendly ties with the feds. If they had to depend solely on the locals, they'd be severely strapped.  

Another form of established relationship comes from Operation Stonegarden, a federal grant program that provides a secondary income stream to local officers and deputies. (It must've been named by a fan of '90s grunge rock.)

"We will pay overtime for county and local department officers to come help us patrol the border," says Brant. 

How common is this arrangement? "If you look at the whole state, it's probably pretty frequent," says Brant. Which means that many of Vermont's sworn officers have their own contracted relationships with the feds, and S.79 does nothing about that. 

It also raises the possibility that local officers might gather information during their regular hours and pass it on to their federal bosses later on, or act on it themselves while on the clock for the border patrol.

Speaking last week abut S.79, Attorney General T.J. Donovan said the bill "draws a bright line." Between Operation Stonegarden and the realities of border-area law enforcement, it's difficult to discern a clear line at all. 

Deans Departs

After four years at the helm of the Vermont Democratic Party, chair Dottie Deans is preparing to step down. The party's state committee plans to meet March 4 to pick an interim chair, who will serve out the remaining eight months of her term.

"It's a good time to give someone else the opportunity," she explains. "It makes sense for someone to take over now to get ready for 2018. This is a reorganization year, and a lot of energy needs to be put into the towns and the counties." 

She notes that such energy is in strong supply; the challenge is to engage it effectively. 

So far, two people have announced their candidacies. Only one has a realistic shot at winning.

Contender No. 1 is Faisal Gill — a Winooski attorney, Chittenden County Democratic Party chair and major Dem donor — who made an unsuccessful bid for the Vermont Senate in 2016. He's the odds-on favorite. 

The long-shot candidate is 29-year-old Nick Clark of Thetford, a self-described "Berniecrat" who volunteered for Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) presidential campaign. Clark also made an ill-fated bid for state representative in 2016, challenging incumbent Reps. Tim Briglin (D-Thetford) and Jim Masland (D-Thetford) in the Windsor-Orange-2 district. He finished a distant third. 

The two men have similar pitches for the state committee. 

"I want to expand the party a lot," says Gill. "We need to figure out our message going forward." He welcomes the participation of the Sanders contingent for its "great ideas" and its passion. 

Gill also talks of closer ties between the state party and the grassroots. "My goal is to reach out to the county parties and the town chairs," he says. "We need to make sure we are set up in all parts of the state."

"I want to see the party become more transparent, accessible and democratic," Clark says. "We aren't focused enough on the grassroots currents in Vermont." 

Each candidate plans to run for a full term in November if successful on March 4. 

As for Deans, she's ready to take a break. "I'm wrung out," she says. "I've given it 100 percent plus. And I just feel like it's ready for someone else.

"I'm not gonna disappear," she concludes. "I just need to recharge."

In one of her final acts as chair, Deans plans to support Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) in his bid for chair of the Democratic National Committee. Other Vermonters with a vote — Secretary of State Jim Condos, VDP vice chair Tim Jerman, and DNC members Terje Anderson and Rep. Mary Sullivan (D-Burlington) — have also committed to the five-term congressman.

Ellison, a prominent surrogate for Sanders' presidential campaign, has been characterized as the insurgent candidate — and has benefited from Sanders' support. But he earned Deans' backing for his organizational commitment.

"My emphasis was on state funding, support for the state parties, which is often in question," she says. "We need DNC support to keep our doors open and our staff employed year-round.

"Keith addressed that better," she adds, comparing Ellison to former U.S. labor secretary Tom Perez, the choice of many mainstream Dems. "Tom wasn't going to guarantee any money for the state parties. That put me back a little bit."

The DNC will elect a new chair on February 25.  

Media Notes

The Burlington Free Press continues to bleed subscribers like a stuck pig.

From December 2015 to December 2016, daily print circulation dropped from 17,915 to 16,326, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, which tracks newspaper circulation rates. That's down from 45,338 in 2006.

The paper's Sunday audience declined at a similar rate last year: from 22,626 to 20,390. A decade earlier, weekend circ was as high as 52,337.

The news wasn't all bad for the Freeps: The paper managed to increase its paid digital circulation from 4,387 to 6,316 over the past year, according to AAM. But it's unclear whether it can continue converting its audience — and win back the print subscribers it's lost over the years.

Further, ad sales have historically paid the freight for newspapers; subscriptions and newsstand (remember them?) sales have provided a fraction of a paper's revenue. And digital ad revenue, despite efforts by newspapers — oops, sorry, "media companies" — to sell online advertising, lags far behind print ad revenue. 

In short, the death spiral of the daily newspaper continues, and the Free Press is no exception. 

Freeps publisher Jim Fogler did not respond to a call seeking comment.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Checkpoint Vermont"