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Retired Chief Of Swanton Border Patrol Defends Recent Traffic Checks

The Swanton sector of U.S. Border Patrol covers nearly 300 miles of the U.S.-Canada border, including parts of New York and all of Vermont and New Hampshire.
Ryan Caron King
New England News Collaborative/file
The Swanton sector of U.S. Border Patrol covers nearly 300 miles of the U.S.-Canada border, including parts of New York and all of Vermont and New Hampshire.

Last week, John Pfeifer retired from his position as Chief Patrol Agent for the U.S. Border Patrol in the Swanton Sector.

That’s the section of Border Patrol that oversees the stretch of the U.S.-Canada border in Vermont, New Hampshire and part of northern New York.

Pfeifer took charge of the sector in 2010, part of a 31-year career with Border Patrol.

VPR's Henry Epp spoke with Pfeifer Tuesday. Listen to their full conversation above.

On the changing nature of border control

Pfeifer served in several different parts of the country over the course of his 31-year career, but a significant part of that time was spent in and around Vermont.

Over his career, resources evolved:

"After the attacks of 9/11 the number of agents on the northern border tripled," said Pfeifer. "And there's also been an influx of technology and that would be sensors, cameras. We [also] have a great partnership with our Canadian counterparts the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and so we're constantly talking back and forth with them."

On the increase in apprehensions

In the last fiscal year, which ended in the fall of 2017, the Swanton sector reported a 54 percent increase in the number of apprehensions compared to the previous fiscal year.

A spokesperson for the agency said that was due to a "more proactive enforcement posture" in that year, which was the year that President Trump took office.

Here's how Pfeifer addressed the increase:

"So we received guidance from our headquarters... in Washington D.C. after the issuance of the presidential executive orders," Pfeifer said. "And in those executive orders, the Border Patrol and CBP [Customs and Border Protection] was directed to heighten enforcement efforts through other means that had been in previous administrations limited."

The new enforcement efforts include checking immigration statuses at bus stations or road-side checkpoints:

"Say for example transportation check, where agents would go to transportation hubs and try and determine immigration status of everybody that they encounter on either a bus a train or other transportation mode and also traffic checkpoints. Those had been kind of put aside for reasons that other administrations wanted," Pfeifer said, "And now, President Trump, through his executive orders reinstituted those type of operations, which have resulted in more apprehensions."

On the ACLU's objection to the New Hampshire checkpoints

Highway checkpoints have often been setup in New Hampshire. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union argued those checkpoints violate New Hampshire’s constitution.

Pfeifer said he understands concerns about privacy, but he argued the goal of the checkpoints is to ensure border security.

"The authority to conduct a traffic checkpoint by the U.S. Border Patrol is statutory law," said Pfeifer. "Those checkpoints can be operated within 100 air miles of the international border. ... There's a lot of things that come across the border that we don't detect and when we set up a checkpoint, you know, within a hundred air miles south on these interstates, we locate and arrest and seize a lot of things that crossed without being detected at the actual border."

On concerns about possible racial profiling

The ACLU has also raised concerns about possible racial profiling on the part of Border Patrol. But Pfeifer claimed Border Patrol does not profile people by race, using the example of a checkpoint at a bus stop:

"Border Patrol agents would board the bus, identify themselves and then they would ask every single individual on the bus about their citizenship," Pfeifer explained. "So there's no racial profiling of only asking people that don't appear to be white, Caucasians. We arrest people from 114 different nationalities, last year. And so the majority of those people are white Caucasian ... that's why we talk to everybody."

On the 1997 Carl Drega manhunt

In 1997, Pfeifer was involved in a horrific incident in Colebrook, New Hampshire. Pfeifer was shot by a man named Carl Drega during a manhunt after Drega killed four people: a former police chief, a New Hampshire State Trooper, a local newspaper editor and a district court judge.

Pfeifer said his perspective changed once he returned to work.

"It just gives you a more heightened awareness about you know I hear people say nothing ever happens to me or you know nothing like that happens around here. But it does," said Pfeifer. "And there are shootings all the time. Police officers are killed and that's that's the world we live in today. And I think that I had a greater appreciation for what we do everyday and insisting multiple law enforcement agencies because there's always calls for assistance."

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