By LOHR McKINSTRY
---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — A U.S. Customs and Border Protection official says the infrequent Interstate 87 checkpoint in Essex County is essential to its mission.
Norman Lague, the agent in charge at the U.S. Border Patrol Station in Champlain, visited the County Board of Supervisors recently to garner support for the controversial North Hudson stop.
“Essex County is very important to our border-security issue,” he said. “Our main focus is criminal interdiction.”
Lague said they’ve identified 53 groups and 150 individuals smuggling through the Akwesasne Reservation that spans the border between Massena and Malone.
“In North Hudson, we have an (Interstate) 87 checkpoint we run sporadically, based on intelligence,” Lague said. “That is a key factor on how we conduct our mission.
“The checkpoint is a necessity, in my opinion.”
The agency has made major busts at the North Hudson checkpoint, he said, but he isn’t allowed to discuss them.
“There have been some significant arrests for marijuana, Ecstasy, currency, alien smuggling made at that checkpoint. (Interstate) 87 is a major corridor that facilitates passage to Boston and New York (City).”
In one case, a farmer provided Border Patrol with a photo of a smuggler crossing the border wearing a 100-pound backpack, Lague said. The photograph was taken when the smuggler tripped a game camera on a farm at the border.
“We did not interdict this individual. The individual was headed south; we assume he jumped on I-87.”
Lague, who has 18 years experience at both U.S. borders, said the New York-Vermont-New Hampshire patrol district has 310 agents and eight stations. It covers 295 miles of border, of which 92 are on waterways.
He said that, from 2008 to July 2013, they made 1,400 arrests of people who were present in their patrol district without legal admission to the United States. Twenty-four individuals from banned countries like Iran were among those arrested.
Lague said trans-national criminal organizations are involved.
“They are smuggling bodies through the woods. There’s also contraband.”
FASTEST ESCAPE ROUTE
Lague repeated over and over how important he believes the I-87 checkpoint is, while mentioning Jonathan Braun, 27, of Staten Island, who had allegedly brought 110 tons of marijuana into the United States through Akwesasne when he was sought by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2010.
Although Braun was apparently using I-87 for his smuggling, he was not apprehended at the North Hudson checkpoint.
Knowing authorities were coming for him, he fled his Long Island residence for his home country of Israel, where he remains, according to news reports.
“A lot of the criminal activity we don’t apprehend slides the fastest way away from the border, which is I-87,” Lague said.
The North Hudson roadblock is one of 30 to 50 checkpoints operated at any given time by the Border Patrol in this district, he said.
Lague admitted the North Hudson stop is controversial.
“Not everyone is in favor of it. It’s about 80 miles away from the border. It’s been legally upheld. Constitutionally, we have the right to do it.”
Insufficient advance signage has been blamed for two serious accidents at the North Hudson checkpoint.
In 2005, an Essex County grand jury declined to indict a Canadian truck driver whose crash at the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in North Hudson killed four people.
Jean Marc Petitclerc, 48, of Quebec, Canada, was initially charged with criminally negligent homicide by State Police after his tractor-trailer plowed into a line of vehicles stopped on Interstate 87 at the checkpoint.
In 2004, Pierre Boulay, 44, of Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec, was cited for failure to slow for a work zone after the charter bus he was driving slammed into vehicles waiting at the checkpoint and injured 54 people. Boulay did not return to answer the traffic citation.
“I know there’s been some tragedy on the highway,” Lague said. “That’s very unfortunate.”
After the fatal crash, the the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report that concluded the roadblock was unsafe, and the Border Patrol said it made changes to the signage at the stop to make it safer.
CHECKPOINT AT RISK
Now, Lague said, the immigration-reform bill currently in Congress would limit their border checkpoints.
“We’d no longer be able to use the tool we have at the (North Hudson) checkpoint. It’s too far.”
An amendment to the bill introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) would shrink the Border Patrol’s authority to operate a checkpoint from within 100 miles of the border to within 25 miles.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) supports the Leahy proposal, as does U.S. Rep. Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh).
“Sen. Leahy got his bill included in the immigration bill that was passed in the Senate,” Owens said in a recent interview. “The stop between exits 29 and 30 would be eliminated.
“It would have to be within 25 miles, so it would be between Plattsburgh and the border. I am fully supportive of this.
“We have checked with Homeland Security, and they’re comfortable with that as well,” Owens concluded.
Supervisor Supervisor Ronald Moore (R-North Hudson) said after Lague’s presentation that he supports the roadblock in his town.
“It’s been controversial, but they’ve made some significant seizures there. They made changes to it that improved the safety.”
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