A report released last week by the New York Civil Liberties Union and Families for Freedom alleges that U.S. Border Patrol agents use aggressive tactics to boost arrest rates, often up to 100 miles away from the border itself.
According to the report, entitled "Justice Derailed: What Raids on New York Trains and Buses Reveal about Border Patrol's Interior Enforcement Practices," New Yorkers in communities near the Canadian border have had their constitutional rights and freedoms violated by the Border Patrol.
Nancy Morawetz, director of New York University's Immigrant Rights Clinic, said in a prepared statement that the Border Patrol's interior enforcement operations often include raids on domestic trains and buses far from the U.S.-Canada border.
"Our findings paint a disturbing picture of an agency that wrongly believes it has the authority to stop anyone at any time or place within 100 miles of the border and demand proof of their citizenship or immigration status," Morawetz said. "Border Patrol tells Congress that it needs money to patrol the border, but instead it is using those funds to arrest and detain immigrants who have lived in the United States for long periods of time."
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, whose 23rd Congressional District of New York encompasses a vast swath of land along the Canadian border, says similar issues haven't surfaced in the North Country.
Owens told the Enterprise on Monday that he's heard about problems with the Border Patrol in places like Rochester and the Finger Lakes, but not so much in his district.
"I can't explain the difference here," he said. "I've been hearing about this issue from some farmers and growers. It's hard for me to understand why it's happening in some places but not to the same level of intensity here."
NYCLU claims that passengers on buses and trains in border areas have been subjected to potential arrest, detention and deportation due to lack of sufficient documentation. A review of arrests made at the Border Patrol's Rochester station found that transportation raids may have been used to bolster arrest figures, often used as a performance indicator.
Between 2006 and 2009, Border Patrol made more than 2,700 transportation arrests, the report states, but less than 1 percent of those were made at an actual border point of entry.
Owens said the only concerns he has heard in the North Country have come from the Massena area.
"People have complained about stops by Border Patrol agents," Owens said. "They will pick a car up, make a stop and ask some questions. The rules are they must have reasonable suspicion. It's a fair question if they ask if someone is a legal citizen. If they say yes, and there's no reason not to believe them, the stop should be terminated and the person should be allowed to go on."
The Border Patrol, in cooperation with New York State Police, sometimes stages a checkpoint on state Route 30 in the town of Tupper Lake. A great deal of the arrests made there are low-level drug offenses, usually unlawful possession of marijuana, which is a violation, less serious than a misdemeanor.
Owens said the focus of Border Patrol activity should be illegal immigration and national security.
"If those stops are happening over a period of time and you're not seeing those sorts of arrests, it's time to re-think that strategy," he said.
A significant portion of tourism and commerce in the North Country is generated by Canadian visitors, and many farmers rely on migrant workers during harvest season. Owens said his office has worked well with Border Patrol to keep a diligent eye on what's going on in the North Country without affecting the flow of goods and people across the border.
A spokesperson from U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in an email the Border Patrol constantly reviews and adjusts its strategies, and that "intelligence driven transportation checks" like those highlighted in the NYCLU report "are one of many tactics utilized to address emerging threats."