Gov. Chris Sununu announces the Northern Border Alliance Task Force alongside Attorney General John Formella and local and state law enforcement. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)
As New Hampshire officials announced 10,000 additional law enforcement patrol hours over the next year and a half at the state’s border with Canada, they pointed to recently obtained data showing approximately 430 individuals on the terrorist watch list attempted to cross the country’s northern border last fiscal year – a higher number than the southern border.
They acknowledged Thursday that those numbers account for entry attempts across the country’s entire border with Canada and were unable to provide numbers specific to New Hampshire’s 58-mile border. That dearth of data has been a focal point for those who oppose the state ramping up its efforts around illegal crossings up north.
Gov. Chris Sununu and Attorney General John Formella were flanked by state and local police on Thursday as they introduced the Northern Border Alliance Task Force, a $1.4 million initiave included in the most recent state budget. It’s the first time Sununu and Formella have detailed how that money will be used.
The Swanton Sector of U.S. Border Patrol – 295 miles across New Hampshire, Vermont, and part of New York – has seen more than 6,000 apprehensions over the last year, “a significant rise” and “more than the previous 11 years combined,” said Formella. The only data officials have provided is for the entire Swanton Sector, not for each state.
Sununu began his remarks Thursday referencing Hamas’ attack on Israel, calling the murder of at least 1,400 people an indication that threats of terrorists attacks “are at an all-time high.”
In the last year, Sununu said, 85 percent of all land border encounters with individuals on the terrorist watch list occurred at the northern border – while only 15 percent occurred on the southern border.
According to a 2020 Homeland Security report, someone can be placed on the watch list if authorities have reasonable suspicion they have engaged in preparing for or conducting terrorist activities. The report does not give specific examples. An individual’s relatives or other close contacts can also be included.
“Obviously the huge proportion of overall encounters … happen on the southern border,” Sununu said. “The fact that they’re clearly making a concerted effort to use Canada and the northern border as their access point into the United States … just kind of brings a heightened awareness.
Here are four takeaways from Thursday’s announcement.
‘Release the data’
Reacting to the launch of the Northern Border Alliance Task Force, Sebastian Fuentes, political director for Rights & Democracy NH and an immigrant rights activist, called the focus on illegal border crossings a “manufactured crisis” and “political stunt.”
He was part of a group that visited Pittsburg, Colebrook, Clarksville, and Stewartstown in September, where they spoke with locals and business owners. What they heard, he said, was very different from what Sununu and state officials are saying.
“My challenge to the governor is, who has the facts?” Fuentes said. “Who knows that this is actually happening? Release the real data.”
The lack of New Hampshire-specific data led House members to eliminate Sununu’s alliance funding from the budget last legislative session. The Senate restored the money.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire filed a federal lawsuit in May seeking state data from Customs and Border Protection. The organization continued its push for it Thursday.
In a statement, Frank Knaack, ACLU’s policy director, said, “The Governor’s Office and Department of Safety are still unable to show any New Hampshire-specific, cumulative data on northern border crossings, and yet announced today that instead of investing in actual, documented needs of North Country communities – including housing, broadband, and substance use treatment – they are moving forward with the next phase of their project to expand police power and surveillance within the Granite State under the guise of a ‘crisis’ on our border.”
Law enforcement will have more authority, money, and legal protections
Until now, Sununu had justified the additional border patrols as necessary to respond to a jump in illegal border activity. He and Formella said Thursday it will also be a proactive effort to patrol the border, looking for illegal activity.
State, local, and county law enforcement that choose to participate in the increased border effort will have access to approximately $1.4 million for training and equipment, and have the authority to patrol within 25 miles of the Canadian border, Formella said. He declined to be specific about what kind of new equipment would be provided.
Participating officers will be able to enforce state criminal laws while cooperating with federal law enforcement when it comes to alleged federal immigration crimes.
“We need more resources, we need more information, we need more data,” Formella said.
Local and county officers who join the task force will receive the same legal guidance and protections provided to state law enforcement. That includes indemnification, meaning if they are sued, they and their individual police departments won’t be left to defend themselves.
“This is critical because if we’re going to ask our law enforcement to step up, and fill the gaps, and protect the people of New Hampshire, we need to have their backs,” Formella said. “So our message to law enforcement today is that if you step up, and you assist with this to protect the North Country and the entire state, we will have your back.”
The task force will log an expected 10,000 hours of patrols by the end of the budget biennium in June 2025. That would be a significant increase over the 600 to 720 patrol hours the federal government is currently funding annually in New Hampshire through Operation Stonegarden, Formella said. The patrols will start immediately.
Sununu is taking the lead on increasing border security, he said, because federal officials have declined his repeated requests to do so.
In March, Sununu wrote to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas asking that he lift a nationwide hold on Immigration Customs Enforcement delegation agreements, which allow state and local law enforcement to perform specified immigration officer functions under the agency’s oversight. After being denied, he followed up with the state’s congressional delegation in August requesting that they help New Hampshire secure an ICE delegation agreement.
Landowners would have new authority to intervene
Sununu said he will seek new legislation that would give property owners more flexibility to erect gates, fences, or other barriers to block people from crossing their land. As one example, Sununu cited landowners who must allow the public to use their land if they take advantage of certain tax breaks under the current use tax assessment.
“It provides some great tax benefits for those individuals, but it also provides some limitations in terms of what they can and can’t do in terms of helping control what is sometimes called the pinch points, right?” Sununu said.
‘We’re not talking about immigration enforcement in the rest of the state’
Asked if they have a message for immigrant communities in the state that may be wary of the newly announced operation, Formella emphasized the state’s efforts are focused on the 25 miles around the Canadian border.
“What we’re focusing on today is border security,” he said. “Protecting against illegal crossings, assisting the federal government with protecting against illegal crossings. We’re not talking about immigration enforcement in the rest of the state.”
The state’s security efforts at the northern border, Sununu added, will in turn protect every citizen, “regardless of your background.”
Distrustful of the narrative coming out of the state government and Republican Party, Fuentes fears the new task force will add to “anti-immigrant” sentiments that he says already exist in New Hampshire. He also worries about what the increased police presence will mean for North Country residents and visitors.
“My biggest concern about this new initiative is that the relationship between law enforcement and the community will be at risk,” he said.
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