Earlier this month, the head of U.S. Border Patrol’s Swanton Sector on the northern border took to Twitter, pointing out what he called a “MAJOR INCREASE!!!”
Acting Chief Patrol Agent Keith Hoops tweeted that Swanton Sector, which includes Vermont, New Hampshire and the very eastern part of New York, had seen an increase in “border encounters” of more than 92% over last year.
“Our #BorderPatrol Agents have worked tirelessly to keep America safe,” he wrote, attaching an image of a graph.
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Yet experts said that while the Swanton Sector has seen an increase in the number of encounters between agents and migrants who are either apprehended or expelled from the country, it’s important to note that it comes amid a global surge in migration.
In Vermont, data cited by Hoops shows an increase of only about 60%. And compared with other border states, the number of encounters here is fairly small.
U.S. Border Patrol reports two different types of encounters: apprehensions, in which migrants are taken into custody to await going before a judge, and expulsions, in which they are immediately expelled either to their home country or their last country of transit.
“We are only one of several countries receiving a vastly increased number of migrants,” said Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight for the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy organization.
Driving factors for the increase include climate change, dictatorships and the social and economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, Isacson said. “It’s going up everywhere.”
Border Patrol is responsible for stopping illicit cross-border activity in between official land ports of entry, such as the border crossing station on Interstate 89 in Highgate.
“In layman’s terms, we’re trying to catch people sneaking people, or contraband, through the woods,” said Richard Ross, patrol agent in charge at the agency’s Richford Station.
What the data shows
Border Patrol agents in the Swanton Sector reported 508 migrant encounters between October 2021 and June 2022, compared to 264 such encounters over the same time period a year prior, according to the data cited by Hoops. This year’s total is also higher than the 444 the agency reported from October 2019 to June 2020, which includes months prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Updated federal data as of Aug. 18, which includes figures for July 2022, shows yet larger year-to-date increases both in Vermont and across the Swanton Sector.
Well over half of that 92% increase came from the New York portion of the Swanton Sector. Vermont saw 198 reported encounters between October 2021 and June 2022, versus 122 over the same time a year prior — about a 62% increase.
Harrison Stark, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said he thinks Hoops’ tweet could be misleading because the increase does not seem as large when considering the actual number of people involved.
On average, the Swanton Sector saw about 27 more encounters in each month this fiscal year than each month last fiscal year between October and June, according to the data.
“When we're talking about a post-pandemic, post-vaccine increase of about two dozen a month, I think those numbers paint a very different picture than the 92% (increase), which looks on paper like it's a very drastic change,” Stark said.
Ross, the Richford Station’s head patrol agent, pointed to the loosening of pandemic-era travel restrictions as the main reason for an increase in encounters, along with an increase in Covid-19 vaccination rates. More travel can bring more opportunities for smugglers to lure people who are in vulnerable situations to Canada, and then into the U.S., he said.
“With the promise of a job, they can have you fly into Toronto or Montreal,” Ross said. “And then, there being no actual job, the next thing is, well, if you pay me more money, I can smuggle you into the United States. So that’s appealing for some folks.”
No one country stands out as the origin of an increase in migrants attempting to enter Vermont, Ross said, who called citizenship a “mixed bag.” In a given year, the Swanton Sector sometimes apprehends people from 50 or 60 different countries, he said.
Per the data, at least 68% of people who were expelled or apprehended by Border Patrol since October 2021 had citizenship in a North, Central or South American country, while about 16% had citizenship that wasn’t reported.
In Vermont, a majority of the encounters since October 2021 have resulted in expulsion, not apprehension, under a pandemic-era public health order known as Title 42.
Invoked in March 2020 under the Trump administration, the controversial policy allows the federal government to bar migrants from entering the country as part of efforts to limit the spread of contagious disease. The Biden administration’s efforts to lift the order were blocked by a judge in May.
More than 80% of those expelled or apprehended in the state by the agency were single individuals; the rest were reported as “individuals in a family unit.”
Ross said Border Patrol agents do not always expel migrants under Title 42, such as in the event they aren’t authorized to enter and remain in Canada as a temporary or permanent resident. In that case, he said the person would likely be apprehended under Title 8, which is the body of U.S. federal law dealing with immigration and nationality.
Hoops’ tweet earlier this month also drew the attention of Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security. In their own tweet, the Republicans said the 92% increase was “a result of the #BidenBorderCrisis.”
But Isacson, of the Washington Office of Latin America, said the increase in migrant encounters has had little to do with the Biden administration or its policies.
“This is a part of a larger trend. The only way I would say it's indirectly because of Biden is just because Biden is not Donald Trump,” he said. “He’s seen at least as caring about the human rights of migrants, and that might make people feel safer coming — although, they were coming in pretty big numbers during Trump, also.”
When accounting for all recorded border encounters, including those at official border crossing locations, which are staffed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations and not under Border Patrol’s jurisdiction, Vermont ranks 13th nationally with 7,475 encounters since October 2021 — about one third of 1% of the nation’s total. (Border Patrol is a part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection).
Isacson said this shows that far more people — thousands, versus hundreds — are being apprehended or expelled at Vermont’s official border crossings.
Perceptions of danger
Stark said he finds it “pretty transparent” why Border Patrol wants to highlight a statistic showing a “major increase” in encounters with migrants.
“I think BP is using these numbers to push a very particular narrative about quote-unquote ‘security,’ and about protecting Vermont,” he said. “But border communities like Swanton are statistically among the safest in the country.”
Ross believes an increase in border encounters — and with that, people attempting to enter the U.S. illegally — could make residents of Vermont’s border towns and cities less safe, though he could not point to a specific incident as an example.
“We get people that call us in the middle of night because somebody's knocking on their door. And that's never a good feeling,” he said.
Sharon Bousquet, who chairs the Highgate Selectboard, said she’s heard that some residents who live near the border have seen an increase in people attempting to cross illegally. Some have expressed feeling unsafe as a result, she said, and she believes “rightly so.”
“We pay so much attention to the southern borders, that we don’t give as much care to the northern borders. And we do have dangerous people that come across,” she said, noting that she thinks the Swanton Sector Border Patrol agents do “a great job.”
Ross said he couldn't comment directly on what Hoops tweets because he can’t speak for the acting chief. But he said he thinks that publishing statistics such as the 92% increase helps Border Patrol tell the agency’s “story.”
“Just in general, to get our story out there and say: ‘Hey, you know what, this type of thing is happening here,” Ross added. “And it's dangerous.”
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