Editor’s note: Before publication, Task & Purpose reached out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for a comment on the experiences Dennis White recounts below. A representative of the agency responded that White and his wife were “detected illegally crossing the border,” but declined to comment further on their temporary detention. CBP’s full statement to T&P is reprinted below, following this essay.

Late last month, my wife and I took a short road trip through northern New England along the Canadian border. What began as a leisurely weekend stroll ended in a tense standoff with aggressive border patrol agents — uniformed civil servants of the same government I served as an Army infantryman for nearly 10 years.

As happens with road trips, we’d taken our time, and the evening came fast; we hadn’t made lodging arrangements over the border in Montreal, and rather than fight for a room on short notice, we decided to stick to the U.S. side. So instead of crossing over, we stopped to take pictures at a sleepy rural border point outside Albergh, Vermont.  

At the end of a dirt road, we found a United States obelisk and a sun-faded sign reading “Bienvenue Canada.” The only other scenery was a herd of cows and a cinderblock wall blocking vehicle entrance. We took some silly tourist photos and got back into our car to return to Burlington for the night. As I was putting the vehicle into reverse, a white SUV appeared, approaching slowly before blocking our exit route.

As the vehicle crept closer, the window rolled down and someone shouted at us. As I rolled down my window, the SUV door popped open and a woman jumped out, running towards our vehicle, screaming garbled accusations about “illegal entry.”

I honestly couldn’t tell at first if it was a U.S. border patrol agent or one of those volunteer border militiamen. Either way, I knew this was not going to go well.

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Courtesy Dennis White
The scene of the “crime” in northern Vermont.

The woman, once closer to our vehicle, began barking: “US CITIZENS?”

Shaken, I replied “Yes.” I was still unsure if this was a government agent, but I instinctively handed her our identification when she shouted “IDs!”

Now I could see it was a border patrol agent; everything would be settled soon, I figured. But she continued screaming at us about the “illegal entry.”

I attempted to de-escalate the situation. “Ma’am, please,” I said, “I have not disrespected you in any way, I am responding calmly. Please. I have not done anything to warrant this type of treatment.”

“I got you on camera illegally entering the United States, and you are lying to me, and that is disrespect, and you are being detained.”  

Another agent arrived at the scene while the first continued yelling at us. I had pulled border security in Iraq, and my experience just made the scene that much more surreal and dangerous to me. We were in a very remote location and she had clearly identified us as a threat. The agent was in a heightened emotional state — angry tone, hostile body language — and Border Patrol’s lack of institutional accountability, combined with a deadly weapon and sloppy security, was frankly beginning to scare me.

The agents’ weapons were still holstered, but I remembered thinking about all the unlikely “ifs.” If these agents decided we were a threat to their safety and shot us in this remote location, there’d be no witnesses; it could be spun to the national media in any way they wished the following day.

While the agents returned to their vehicles to check our ID cards, I posted an update to Facebook letting friends know about our situation as a last-ditch safety measure. I also took a pen from the center console and wrote my sister’s phone number on my wife’s arm, in case she needed to call from jail.

The agents returned and barked at my wife to get out of the vehicle. While she was speaking to the first agent, the other began demanding to know what I was doing in northern Vermont. He went through a rapid-fire series of questions that I answered as quickly as possible. When the agent discovered I was an Army veteran, he asked me where I served.

Then he abruptly told me to admit to illegally entering the United States.

It made no sense. I was grateful my wife had that phone number on her arm.

The agents left and had a brief talk between themselves. It had been 45 minutes since the first white SUV had blocked our path home. Then they walked back, returned our IDs and apologized profusely for getting off on the wrong foot.

Customs and Border Protection has a significant mission. America is a nation of laws. But those laws dictate federal officers’ behavior as well as migrants’. If we had actually committed the crime these agents claimed we committed, they could have calmly approached the vehicle, informed us of our infraction, and returned with either a ticket or a warning. But they didn’t. The poor discipline displayed by these and other agents, ramping up aggression during the initial phase of the stop, was dangerous to the safety of everyone involved.

Imagine, for a moment, if I had met the agent’s aggressiveness in similar fashion. I would not be writing this piece right now, and someone at the Department of Homeland Security’s public affairs office would be spinning our deaths as an unfortunate mistake, while absolving themselves of responsibility.

Unchecked armed aggression is contrary to our values. We cannot allow our haste to secure the borders turn us into a police state. As the Senate continues to degrade border patrol hiring and training standards, we must prevent needless aggression against innocent bystanders, or anybody else. You don’t protect the rule of law by using it as a bludgeon.

Editor’s note: Task & Purpose reached out to a representative of U.S. Customs and Border Protection for a comment on Dennis’ experience. Here is that response in its entirety:

“Privacy policy prohibits the release of the specific details of the investigation however the subject was encountered in the immediate border region after being detected illegally crossing the border. 

During the course of normal patrol duties, Border Patrol agents will encounter people near the border area. Section 287 of the Immigration and Nationality Act gives agents the statutory authority to interrogate any alien or person believed to be an alien as to their right to be or remain in the United States. Persons determined to be illegally present in the United States will be taken into custody. Conversely, if during the investigative detention it is determined that the person being questioned has valid immigration status, they are released and allowed to continue on with their travels.

The Blair Road in Alburg, Vermont ends at the U.S. and Canadian border. There is not an official Port of Entry at that location. Because Border Patrol agents encountered the individuals in this area, they are obligated to investigate.”

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