Vermonters reject border militarization

On April 5, 2021, ACLU of Vermont Executive Director James Duff Lyall participated in a press conference held by Representative Peter Welch in Derby Line, Vermont, regarding a proposal for eight Border Patrol surveillance towers in communities along Vermont's northern border.  Below are his remarks during the event.

"Vermonters value their civil liberties and privacy, just as we value the integrity and well-being of the communities we live in.  The cross-partisan group of speakers here today demonstrates that fact, and is reflective of something the ACLU has seen repeatedly over the years: few issues unite Vermonters from across the political spectrum and from diverse backgrounds more than their opposition to the militarization of Vermont communities by the U.S. Border Patrol.

We thank you for representing and speaking up on behalf of so many Vermonters who oppose this plan for all the reasons that have been stated: the threat surveillance towers pose to residents’ privacy, civil liberties, and local economies, and the fact that these towers aren’t necessary or justified in any way. We also agree the public comment period should be extended, given CBP’s failure to provide notice to impacted communities and state leaders.  Vermonters have a right to be heard.  At the same time, the ACLU would emphasize that we already know all we need to know about this agency and this proposal.

Border communities are statistically among the safest in the country, and Swanton Sector border arrests represent a tiny fraction of the nationwide total.  By contrast, the harms Border Patrol’s presence already does to these communities and to our state are extensive, and will only increase if this plan is allowed to go forward. 

As it happens, I have direct experience working and living in other communities harmed by the presence of the Border Patrol.  Before returning to Vermont, I started my ACLU career in southern Arizona, where it was my job to investigate, document, and litigate civil rights abuses committed by Border Patrol agents in local communities

There, I saw small towns that were transformed by border militarization to the point they are now unrecognizable: surveillance towers, drones, and other forms of aerial surveillance, along with the ever-expanding presence of Border Patrol agents on the ground: at checkpoints, in roving patrols, even trespassing onto private property with impunity. 

These are American communities that may seem a world away, but not very long ago they were in many ways a lot like Derby Line.  They now look and feel like war zones, where residents live in fear of their next encounter with an armed federal agent – of having to justify their presence in their own community to an armed federal agent.  It would be a mistake to think that can’t happen here. In fact, it already is –surveillance towers are already here, residents are already being stopped and interrogated in their towns.  And we don’t have to accept that.  And we shouldn’t.

In the course of my career, I’ve come to know U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Border Patrol well.  I'm deeply familiar with the agencies' operations, priorities, culture, and history.  Based on that experience, I would urge that in addition to the many objections raised to this specific proposal, it’s critically important to consider the specific agency that would be operating these towers in Vermont communities, the Border Patrol.

Maya Angelou famously said that when someone shows you who they are, you should believe them the first time.  The Border Patrol has been showing us who they are and what they are for a long, long time. 

We have seen Border Patrol agents abducting peaceful protesters off the streets of American cities with no legal basis.  We have seen Border Patrol agents tearing thousands of children from their mothers’ arms and heard the audio recordings of agents joking about the cries of those terrified children. 

We have seen a Facebook group made up of nearly 10,000 Border Patrol agents featuring openly racist, misogynistic comments and jokes about deaths in their custody.  At least seven children have died in Border Patrol custody in the past three years, in addition to other children shot and killed along the border in recent years.  I represented the family of one of those children, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez.  A Border Patrol agent shot Jose Antonio 10 times in the back from across the U.S. border, killing him. 

Just last month, the ACLU published CBP records from another northern border sector describing thousands of traffic stops, the vast majority targeting people of color – evidence of systematic racial profiling on a staggering scale. 

That’s the agency that would be operating these towers and related surveillance infrastructure in Vermont towns and communities.  Nothing about any of this is normal or acceptable, and at some point, we have a responsibility to do something about it.  The Border Patrol has shown us what it is, many, many times over. When someone shows us who they are, we should believe them.  And we should act accordingly.

So we agree with many of the concerns raised here today by our Congressional delegation, our attorney general and other state leaders, and again we thank them for voicing these concerns and for all they are doing and will do to oppose these surveillance towers in Vermont. 

In closing, I want to point out that we are now finally having a long-overdue conversation in this country about fundamentally reimagining and transforming law enforcement.  And if we are willing to have that conversation with respect to local police, we must include the Border Patrol in that conversation as well.

This is an agency that has shown us that it does not represent our values, our ideals, or our laws.  We, our members and supporters, and all the many Vermonters who value civil liberties, human rights, and human dignity – and who oppose border militarization in this community and in all communities – are having that conversation right now, and we invite you to join us.