Ordeal at the border

Posted Aug. 14, 2009, at 7:13 p.m.

TOWNSHIP 25, Maine — Hundreds of blueberry rakers traveling from Canada into Maine at the Calais border crossing during the past week were stopped, searched and questioned by U.S. Customs officials, something many said hasn’t happened to them in more than 40 years.

The rakers on their way to Maine’s blueberry fields were Micmacs, one of the First Nations groups of aboriginal peoples of northeastern Canada. Many said this week they believe they were stopped because they are Micmacs.

At the blueberry-harvesting areas north of Columbia Falls on Tuesday, many said their vehicles were searched by customs officials and dogs and that their paperwork was scrutinized. They carry First Nations status cards that serve as identification. The cards should enable them to cross the border under recently implemented Department of Homeland Security regulations.

Some of the Micmacs said they were held up for as long as three hours. Many reported that border agents frightened them with an aggressive attitude.

Several people who did not want to be identified reported that flour for their traditional fry bread was confiscated and at least two vehicles were damaged during searches. One, a pickup truck belonging to John Augustine, was damaged when a search dog trying to climb onto the back of the truck badly scratched the paint on the tailgate. Augustine said he was given a damage claim form and instructed to get estimates for repairs and submit appropriate paperwork.

Ted Woo, public affairs officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Boston, confirmed Tuesday that there was “a temporary enforcement action in effect but it is now over” at the Calais-St. Stephen, New Brunswick, crossing. He denied that it was aimed at First Nations members but did say the action specifically targeted blueberry rakers coming into the U.S.

“We do these a lot, not just at land borders, but at seaports and airports as well,” he said. “We were looking primarily for those looking for illegal employment and assuring everyone had proper documentation.”

Woo said Thursday that the status cards used by First Nations people “were not an issue” in the enforcement action at the border. “The action focused only on one particular part of an industry. The cards played no role at all.”

Woo said it is Customs and Border Protection’s policy not to discuss individual operations and declined to say how many vehicles were stopped, where other similar operations have taken place, what prompted the Calais-St. Stephen operation, or whether anyone was turned back or arrested.

Woo stressed that similar operations take place “all over the country for various reasons.” He said many of them are targeted at a certain group of people, such as rakers and harvesters.

“We do not look at anyone’s ethnic or racial background,” he said.

Vincent Simon, a crew boss for Northeastern Blueberry Co., a processor owned by the Passamaquoddy tribe, disagreed with Woo’s characterization of what was happening.

“This has never happened in other years,” said Simon. “People were told that it was random, routine, but it was anything but that.”

The rakers realized the extent of the operation as they gathered at the fields last weekend and traded stories of their experiences. Of 120 people on Simon’s crew, 100 reported being stopped, he said. Similar numbers were being reported for other work crews: 100 at one, 110 at another, he said.

“It makes my blood boil,” said Simon.

Simon, a former Micmac chief from Thunder Bay, Ontario, said he has been a supervisor for 18 years and was a raker for 30 years. He said that during the harvest, 800 Micmacs or more typically cross the border to work.

Starting late last week, several hundred vehicles were stopped, all of them containing Micmacs, according to Simon.

“Nobody travels from Canada to pick blueberries unless they are First Nations,” he said.

Anne Levi of Elsipogtog, New Brunswick, said she was surprised when she was pulled over and asked to come inside the border station.

“They put the dogs in my vehicle and let them walk all over my bedding,” she said. “They took all our clothes out of our bags. … They went through our underclothes and our bathroom supplies.”

Levi has been crossing the border to rake blueberries for 40 years. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “In my group, I was the first car pulled over. Then there were two more, both natives.”

She said when the families attempted to speak to each other in Micmac, they were told to stop talking and were separated by authorities.

“This was a shock to us,” she said. “When I was there, every car with a native was stopped.”

Kevin Augustine, also Micmac from New Brunswick, said he too was stopped. “I really feel it was racial targeting. This is a wee bit too much.”

Grace Milliea, 49, was traveling with her four children, ages 20 to 9, when she was pulled over at the border. “My kids were scared. I’ve been coming to the U.S. twice a year since I was 9 and never before have I seen this,” she said.

Milliea said every person whom she saw show a status card — a work permit for First Nations members — was stopped and searched.

For John Augustine Jr., 41, it was very unpleasant.

“They kept us there more than an hour,” he said in a quiet voice. “They had me pull my shorts up and then said higher, higher. There was a woman behind me. It was just like a prison. We didn’t know what was going on.”

Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith said Wednesday he had received no complaints from any of the rakers.

Anne Levi said the Micmacs would be unlikely to file formal complaints with any law enforcement office. She and others said they were afraid their names would be placed on a watch list by the U.S. government.

“We do not want to have more trouble when we cross the border next time,” she said.