It’s easy up here in Maine to think the controversies at our borders are far-away concepts. That they're issues that affect Maine only in the most peripheral way, arguments and discussions and pain that are “from away” and not really our own.
They are not. Sure, the stories we see right now, that tug at our heartstrings and make us question the morality of the current administration — or as the case may be, that embolden Trump supporters and conservatives and make them feel good — those stories are at the southern border. They are the stories of “zero tolerance” policies that make all border-crossers immediately into criminals and burden the court system, stories of people shifting out of immigration law and caged up, stories of children — many of them extremely young — ripped from their parents and denied contact with them.
These are heartbreaking stories to me and to many (hopefully most) of the people who read this column. They speak to how the administration can criminalize entire racial and ethnic groups — even though crime rates are lower among immigrants, even the undocumented ones in this country, than among American citizens.
But they are issues that affect us in Maine, and it's not just from a broader ethical or moral perspective, and it's not simply as discussion points.
Border patrol agents are exerting their authority — powers that fly in the face of history and tradition and even the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — here in New England. Here in Maine.
Last month, border patrol agents closed off the southbound lanes of I-95 north of Bangor. Drivers were stopped, had their cars searched, and were asked about their citizenship before they were allowed to continue down the road. At least one such encounter was caught on a cellphone recording. The implications are that you need to be a citizen to travel the road — or at least travel it farther without extra harassment. Sure, you can point to the fact that some drugs were seized and say “See!” but if you blocked off I-95 in Southern Maine for 11 hours you’d probably seize a lot more drugs from American citizens. These tactics echo stories we heard here in New England after President Trump’s Muslim travel ban first reared its ugly head, when federal agents boarded buses to demand ID from travelers.
Then a report from the ACLU on July 19, titled “Federal Immigration Authorities Are Running Amok Across Maine and Its Coastline,” noted Customs and Border Protection was questioning Canadian fishing vessels in disputed international waters. I’m not saying CBP has no reason to patrol Maine’s shores, but I’ve seen an uptick in federal agents at the Casco Bay Lines Terminal since Trump took office. How many border problems and immigration/drug woes are we having in the islands in Casco Bay? I’m thinking just about none or close enough to none.
It’s muscle-flexing by a federal agency with little transparency and too much power. CBP officers don’t simply patrol borders — they're legally permitted to scan any area within 100 miles of the perimeter of the United States, and area that affects some 200 million Americans and covers more than 10 states in their entirety.
I thought one of the nice things about living in America, where we say we value freedom and liberty — unlike say, Cold War-era or East Germany-style places — is not having officers demand my papers.
ALL THIS FOR WHAT
What is all of this accomplishing?
Do you think Maine’s drug problems are the fault of Canada? Do you think people from Canada want to illegally come into our country (given the bad attitude Trump has directed toward that nation and our messed-up healthcare system and other factors) to be undocumented immigrants here?
What it is accomplishing is nothing short of increasing federal authority in an attempt to intimidate people, and to make this behavior seem normal. It isn’t. You don’t need to be a citizen to travel in this country, whether by car or by bus or anything else. How else are tourists and other foreign visitors supposed to get around? Transportation here is not limited to citizens. Nor our business nor our scenic landscapes nor our roads.
At best, what we will accomplish by allowing this to continue unquestioned and unchallenged is to make tourists less willing to come here (hurting our economy) and make people less willing to go through legal immigration to take jobs that we need filled because Maine is rapidly aging and the natural-born Americans here don’t have enough skills in enough numbers to fill them — again, hurting our economy.
But beyond hurting our economy, it makes us look like frightened fascists. If that’s the Maine you want, perhaps you don’t really love Maine. Perhaps you are the one who should leave instead of being happy that people are being kept out or driven out.
Shay Stewart-Bouley is the editor of the digital publication Black Girl in Maine.