Border Patrol Asserts Authority Up North

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While national debate is focused on Arizona's immigration law, a quieter change in the enforcement of citizenship and visas is happening along parts of the northern border. In upstate New York, federal agents are boarding trains and buses up to 100 miles from the border, asking passengers for documents. The checks are sweeping up some foreign college students and researchers who are in the country legally, and it's causing friction with area universities.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The national debate on border security has focused largely on America's southern border. But quieter change has already taken place along parts of our northern border. It's now commonplace in upstate New York for federal agents to board buses and trains miles from the border and ask passengers for proof of citizenship.

North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein reports.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: Its dark at the bus stop in the little village of Canton, New York, about 25 miles from Canada. Two Border Patrol cars idle and await the 8:00 from Syracuse.

(Soundbite of a braking bus)

SOMMERSTEIN: The Adirondack Trailways bus rumbles in.

(Soundbite of conversation)

SOMMERSTEIN: A pair of Border Patrol agents greets the driver and boards the bus. They ask each passenger: Are you an American citizen, and then they move on. Tonight, everyone checks out and the whole thing ends quickly.

This scene has become increasingly common, as almost 2,000 more agents have been assigned to the northern border since September 11th. The Border Patrol asserts its authority to conduct checks like this within 100 air miles of the international border, including the coastlines.

The policy has been hard on international students in a region with dozens of universities. Take the case of a Chinese piano student who was detained from a bus two years ago.

Ms. BETHANY PARKER-GOEKE (Coordinator, International Education and Programs, State University of New York, Potsdam): He was handcuffed. He felt very threatened.

SOMMERSTEIN: Bethany Parker-Goeke directs the International Education office at the State University of New York at Potsdam, just down the road from Canton. She says the 20-year-old, who she cant name for privacy reasons, was applying for a change in visa status, so he didnt have his documents on him.

Ms. PARKER-GOEKE: I had all his original valid documents on my desk.

SOMMERSTEIN: The student was held for four hours, then returned to campus. A few days later, federal agents were back to detain him again because his status was still up in the air. He spent almost a month in two county jails and one immigration detention center near Buffalo. Finally, says Parker-Goeke, he was released.

Ms. PARKER-GOEKE: It was very disturbing to me because they had already given him a jail nickname, Smart Boy. And I was just appalled to think that this international student had another education all separate that he really should not have had at all.

SOMMERSTEIN: Because the student missed the first four weeks of the semester, he had to drop out and return to China. Parker-Goeke says his parents wouldn't let him come back.

At the University of Rochester, International Student Services Director Cary Jensen says thousands of his students have been questioned on the bus or train over the last few years, with more than a dozen detained.

Mr. CARY JENSEN (International Student Services Director, University of Rochester): I know there's concerns with anti-terrorism and smuggling, and we want to stop that stuff. But I think in the process of trying to do that, we're creating an unfriendly environment for the legitimate people who are here that we want to attract here.

SOMMERSTEIN: The border patrol wouldn't do an interview for this story, but in an emailed statement, spokesman Rafael Lavitre(ph) said agents use the checks to prevent smugglers from using public transportation to access the interior of the country.

Media reports say the checks have netted drugs and criminals, but civil rights advocates say they're too intrusive for ordinary citizens.

Mr. UDI OFER (Lawyer, American Civil Liberties Union): We don't live in a society where you have to carry your papers with you at all times.

SOMMERSTEIN: Udi Ofer(ph) is a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. He says two-thirds of all Americans live within the 100-mile zone. Ofer says the border patrol is going far beyond the Constitution's requirement of individualized suspicion.

Mr. OFER: Not only is it a violation of our privacy rights as Americans, but quite frankly, it's also a recipe for racial profiling.

SOMMERSTEIN: The border patrol says foreign appearance is one factor among many in determining suspicion.

Congressman Bill Owens sits on the House Homeland Security Committee and supports beefing up the northern border. The Democrat says the government is trying to strike a balance between stopping the bad guys and leaving everyone else alone.

Representative BILL OWENS (Democrat, New York): It is a difficult balance to achieve. We want to make sure that they're not interfering with legitimate activities of business and individuals. But it is a necessary part of the law enforcement process.

SOMMERSTEIN: Cary Jensen of the University of Rochester says if the citizenship checks are necessary, then they should be a subject of national dialogue first.

Mr. JENSEN: My fear here is that we just sort of allow that to kind of creep in and become that without consciously deciding that that's what we need to do.

SOMMERSTEIN: Border patrol agents met last month with Jensen and other international student specialists from across New York. Jensen says those talks were positive, but he still counsels his international students to keep their papers on them at all times.

For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in Canton, New York.

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