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Border patrol agents question drivers at I-95 checkpoint about citizenship

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent at a traffic stop in the I-95 southbound lane between Howland and Lincoln Thursday evening, where CBP agents were questioning the citizenship status of drivers and passengers. (Alex Acquisto | BDN)

BANGOR (BDN) -- U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents set up a checkpoint Wednesday on Interstate 95, stopping drivers and asking them questions about their citizenship before letting them proceed.

The random checkpoint shut down the southbound lane between the Penobscot County towns of Howland and Lincoln. Several agents set up cones blocking the highway, and then asked vehicle occupants questions about their citizenship. Southbound drivers could not avoid the roadblock.

“If you want to continue down the road, then yes ma’am. We need to know what citizen — what country you’re a citizen of,” an agent said Wednesday evening. When questioned about what would happen if a driver declined to answer, he said the car would only be able to keep going if, after further questioning and upon the agent’s judgment, “the agent is pretty sure that you’re U.S. citizens.”

These routine checkpoints are similar to immigration checks that border agents are performing at Maine bus stops, where agents have been captured on video asking riders about their citizenship, said Stephanie Malin, a CBP spokeswoman.

In recent months, the bus stop checks have come under fire from the Maine American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the federal agency for records to learn more about the practice. Lawyers for the Maine ACLU said they have questions concerning “the intrusive operation,” and whether it infringes on the Fourth and Fifth amendment rights of bus passengers.

The legal advocacy organization has gone after highway checkpoints in the past, having previously requested records from the agency and calling them examples of government harassment, according to BDN archives.

On Wednesday, attorney Emma Bond said the Maine ACLU was also interested in learning more about the highway checks as it pursued records about the bus checks.

“People have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, whether at a bus station or on the road,” she said.

It wasn’t clear immediately if agents made any detentions or arrests on Wednesday. Malin confirmed that CBP’s Houlton sector was performing a “checkpoint operation” on Wednesday, but did not immediately respond to questions on Thursday morning.

“The timing, location, and frequency of our tactical immigration checkpoints are law enforcement sensitive,” Malin said. “Checkpoints are placed strategically to cover routes that smugglers use to make their way into the interior. They allow for inspections of vehicles and occupants on specific roads or highways leaving the border area that are known by law enforcement to have a high volume or high likelihood of transnational smuggling activities.”

In 2010, a border patrol agent called I-95 an ideal location for immigration checkpoint operations because it is a “choke point” for people heading south from the Canadian border, according to BDN archives. Similar to an the explanation given at that time, an agent on Wednesday described the Howland stop as a “random checkpoint” to “see what we can catch.”

Last weekend in New Hampshire, border agents performed a similar check on Interstate 93, where they arrested five people who did not have legal immigration status, the agency said.

Agents in New Hampshire also seized drugs, including marijuana, marijuana edibles and THC vape oil during the stop, the agency said.

BDN writer Alex Acquisto contributed to this report.

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