Peter Homer rides the Concord Coach Lines bus from Bangor to Boston once a month for his job as an engineer, but he had never seen U.S. Border Patrol agents at the Bangor Transportation Center until he lined up to board the bus Jan. 14.

“After we handed our tickets to the driver and handed our bags to the bag handler, there was a Border Patrol agent standing, blocking the door to the bus, basically asking, are we U.S. citizens?” Homer said.

Homer, 56, answered “yes” and was allowed to board the bus. But the experience was upsetting, he said, and prompted him to contact the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which is now questioning the action.

“It’s sad to me that our country has turned into a police state where its citizens aren’t allowed to freely move around,” he said.

That’s not the way Bob Casimiro of Bridgton sees it.

Casimiro wasn’t boarding the bus in Bangor, but has visited the southern U.S. border as part of a civilian border patrol force. He said he has been through dozens of immigration checks there.

“Border Patrol people are very fastidious in how they carry out their duties,” he said. “They’re just trying to protect us.”

Border Patrol, which is part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, has the authority to conduct citizenship checks without a warrant within 100 miles of the nation’s land and coastal boarders. That includes the entire state of Maine. The ACLU said 10 other states – Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont – are also entirely or almost entirely in that 100-mile zone.

And immigration inspections at transportation hubs are not a new practice in Maine.

CHANGING ENFORCEMENT PRIORITIES

But immigration and civil rights advocates say there is evidence these inspections are becoming more frequent under the new enforcement priorities of the Trump administration. A video of U.S. Border Patrol agents detaining a woman on a bus in Florida drew attention to the practice when it went viral this week. So when Homer reported the Bangor bus check to the ACLU of Maine, the organization filed a Freedom of Information Act request this week to learn more about immigration inspections at the Bangor and Portland transportation centers.

On Thursday and Friday, officials in the Houlton sector for Customs and Border Protection declined to answer questions about the frequency of citizenship checks in Maine.

Division Chief Dennis Harmon said the agency conducts daily checks on the Cyr Bus Line, an Old Town-based company that operates in the United States and Canada. But he would not say how often those checks take place elsewhere in the state.

“Conveyances, including buses, traveling in the state of Maine, regardless of their origination, destination or station stop, are subject to immigration inspection,” Harmon wrote in an email Friday.

U.S. citizens are not required to carry documents to prove their citizenship. That paperwork would include passports, birth certificates or enhanced driver’s licenses available in some states. Harmon said people who are not citizens are required by law to carry documents proving their right to be or remain in the United States. Lying about being a U.S. citizen is against the law.

If a person at an immigration inspection refuses to state his or her citizenship, Harmon said the next step for the Border Patrol agent is “open-ended.”

“The agent, with their experience and training, will make a determination from there if they need to go further in their investigation,” Harmon said.

Harmon said the most recent arrest during a citizenship check in Maine took place Thursday. He would not disclose more details, including the location of the checkpoint or the reason for the arrest, due to an ongoing investigation. He also would not say how many Border Patrol arrests took place at transportation hubs in Maine last year, citing a pending Freedom of Information Act request. A pending request from another party is not an exemption for public access under federal law. The Portland Press Herald filed a Freedom of Information Act request Friday for details of arrests and immigration inspections.

Civil liberties and immigration advocates have said these checkpoints are ripe for racial profiling. On its website, the ACLU advises people that they have the right to remain silent if questioned about their immigration status.

REFUSAL COULD LEAD TO DETENTION

Zachary Heiden, the legal director for the ACLU of Maine, said he would recommend citizens and non-citizens talk to an attorney before answering any questions from law enforcement.

“I don’t want to live in a world where the government is able to constantly demand that I show my papers,” Heiden said. “And in order to fight back against that, it requires me not to cooperate with Customs and Border Protection.”

Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland, said Border Patrol agents have the authority to set up checkpoints and board buses to ask about citizenship status, but not to search luggage or conduct a pat-down search without probable cause or consent.

However, attorneys agreed that refusing to answer questions would likely result in detention.

“You definitely have the right to remain silent, but the result might be that they would hold you over,” Roche said.

Homer said he was not sure how he would react if he was questioned about his citizenship on a future bus trip. He would not want to be detained while traveling for work, he said, but he would want to challenge the Border Control practice.

“That seems like it flies in the face of everything our country is about,” Homer said.

To Casimiro, however, an immigration inspection is routine and reasonable.

Casimiro is the founder of Mainers for Responsible Immigration, a newly formed group that has about 30 members and advocates for more limited immigration. He said his greatest concern is the need for more border security to prevent illegal crossings and drug trafficking.

In recent years, Casimiro has traveled to the country’s southern border nine times. In March, he plans to make a 10th trip to meet up with Arizona Border Recon, a nongovernmental organization of civilians that patrols the border. Casimiro said it is common there to drive through Border Patrol checkpoints on the highways in Arizona and Texas.

“My attitude on that was that it didn’t bother us at all,” Casimiro said. “When I see stuff like that, it’s somewhat gratifying that they’re being that careful in inspecting people that are coming across.”

DETENTIONS HAVE DROPPED

Border Patrol reported more than 310,000 apprehensions in federal fiscal year 2017. That is a decrease of more than 100,000 from the previous year. The vast majority of those – more than 300,000 – took place at the southwest border. Just over 3,000 took place on the northern border.

The Houlton sector, which includes the entire state of Maine, accounted for only 30 of that number. That section of the northern border traditionally has the smallest number of apprehensions out of any sector in the country. It is unclear where in Maine those apprehensions took place.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: megan_e_doyle


Correction: This story was revised at 9:47 a.m., Jan. 29, 2018, to reflect the correct job title of Dennis Harmon. He is division chief of the Houlton sector of the U.S. Border Patrol.

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