Editorial: Bullying at the border hurts Vermont

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Vermont is well-known around the world as a place that welcomes outsiders, as travelers or as new residents.

It has to be. There's just 625,000 of us here, and it's not overstating the facts to say every visitor who pulls up to a roadside store for maple syrup and cheddar cheese, ties a lift ticket to their ski jacket or tees off at a golf course is important to our economy. They come here, and come back, because they feel welcome.

That's why the behavior of border patrol and immigration enforcement officers operating in Vermont is of great concern here in Manchester, 143 miles south of the Highgate Springs border crossing.

Their recent run of behavior — turning away Muslims at the Canadian border, seizing and searching electronic devices without warrants, and harassing migrant farm workers active in the Migrant Justice movement — is putting our state's reputation and our livelihoods in jeopardy. It needs to stop.

None of that nonsense makes America safer. All it does is send a hostile, unwelcoming message to those who would visit and work in our state. It's not who we are or who we want to be.

So we'll be very interested to hear what James Duff Lyall, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont, will have to say about the ACLU's lawsuit against the federal government over no-warrant searches of electronic devices when he visits Manchester's Northshire Bookstore on Wednesday evening.

We acknowledge that border patrol officers have a tough, stressful job. Our border with Canada is vast, while the border patrol's resources are thin.

But this is still a nation of laws —such as the Fourth Amendment.

Consider the case of Vermont journalist Terry J. Allen, who was wrongly asked to erase her camera's memory card and turn over her cell phone by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers during a recent border crossing. She wrote about the experience for VTDigger.org.

Allen was told that she was not allowed to take photos at the Highgate Springs facility, when, in fact, federal law allowed her to do just that.

Here's what CFR 102-74.420 says: "Except where security regulations, rules, orders, or directives apply or a Federal court order or rule prohibits it, persons entering in or on Federal property may take photographs of ... (c) Building entrances, lobbies, foyers, corridors, or auditoriums for news purposes."

Allen reported that a Department of Homeland Security bulletin affirmed the right of agents to conduct interviews to make sure photographers aren't taking pictures for nefarious purposes. But that bulletin also said this: "Because the initial interview is voluntary, officers should not seize the camera or its contents and must be cautious not to give such 'orders' to a photographer to erase the contents of a camera as this constitutes a seizure or detention."

Allen acknowledges she had it easy. The officers gave her phone back and let her go on her way.

Ghassan and Nadia Alasaad were not so fortunate.

On July 12, the Alasaads were crossing the border at Highgate Springs as they returned from a family vacation in Quebec to their home in Revere, Mass., when they were detained by CPB officers for six hours and had their cellphones searched without a warrant.

The Alasaad family are naturalized citizens of the United States. He's a limo driver; she's a nursing student. They pose no threat to national security. Their 11-year-old daughter was running a fever and needed to get home.

Instead of being welcomed back, they were treated like they don't belong here, and for no apparent meaningful purpose.

When Mr. Alasaad asked why his family was being detained and searched, the supervisor responded that he had simply felt like it. And when the family got their phone back 15 days later in the mail, their video of their daughter's graduation was gone.

There's a word for what happens when people in positions of power misuse their authority to demean or intimidate others because they feel like it. That word is "bullying."

We can't say for certain if the Alasaads were profiled and hassled for their names or their appearance. It would be unfair to make such a serious accusation without the facts. But the optics are undeniably awful. And the Alasaads are not alone.

Diane Maye, a former U.S. Air Force captain now working as an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, is also among the plaintiffs in the ACLU suit. She told The New York Times she was detained at the Miami International Airport on June 25 on her return from Europe and had her laptop and phone searched.

Maye, who managed advisors to the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Defense as a U.S. contractor during the Iraq war, told The Times she was interrogated about her travels, career and contacts in the Middle East.

So much for "Welcome to Miami."

These no-warrant electronic searches started under the administration of George W. Bush, increased under Barack Obama, and have spiked since Donald Trump took office. So there's a long history and blame to go around. But the recent increase is an alarming trend that needs to stop.

Vermonters do not want their valued visitors to feel like they're being profiled as criminal suspects.

Vermonters do not much appreciate it when the migrant farm workers who do hard work for long hours and little money are hounded by ICE agents.

And Vermonters certainly do not tolerate even the hint of U.S. citizens at our border being treated differently because of their last name or their appearance.


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