Ahead of the New Hampshire primary, Republicans campaign on security at the border — with Canada

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Across the border from Hereford, Canada, past the American flag-studded welcome sign to Canaan, Vt., and down Route 114 is the Beecher Falls Border Patrol Station, less than a mile from the New Hampshire state line.

It’s near here that a group of migrants entered the U.S. last September before making their way into New Hampshire, where they were arrested by federal agents in one of just two publicly known smuggling incidents connected to the state over the last two years.

In the months ahead of its primary election Tuesday, New Hampshire cracked down on migration at the northern border, despite a lack of data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection showing how many migrants illegally enter the state from Canada. CBP doesn’t maintain data on border crossings through individual states.

GOP Gov. Chris Sununu, who has endorsed Republican Nikki Haley for president, recently allocated $1.4 million for beefed up border security, citing increased migrant crossings in the U.S. Border Patrol’s Vermont-headquartered Swanton Sector, which encompasses that state, New Hampshire and part of New York.

“I don’t just want a border wall — we’ve got to do a whole lot more than that. That’s what will close off the northern and the southern borders,” Haley said alongside Sununu at a New Hampshire campaign event in Hollis last week in a nod to her surrogate’s immigration policy.

Though state leaders could be setting a favorable stage for Republican candidates looking to capitalize on a hard-line immigration stance, a focus on northern border strategy doesn’t appear to be landing with the majority of New Hampshire residents.

Most New Hampshire voters aren’t worried about security along the state’s 58-mile border with Canada, according to a poll released this month by Suffolk University Political Research Center, the Boston Globe and USA Today. Almost 80% of respondents said the number of migrants entering the U.S. was an “emergency situation” or a “major problem.” But only about 36% of respondents said they were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about New Hampshire’s northern border.

Sununu’s Northern Border Alliance Task Force, which launched in October, has funded 10,000 patrol hours through June 30, 2025. That’s a substantial increase over the 600 to 720 patrol hours the federal government funds annually in New Hampshire through Operation Stonegarden, state Atty. Gen. John Formella told reporters when he and Sununu introduced the task force. State and local police officers are being trained and authorized to “detect and deter illegal activity” within 25 miles of the remote border region.

Arrests across the Swanton Sector topped 6,900 last fiscal year, up from 365 in 2021, according to CBP figures. A high of nearly 1,100 migrants were arrested in October. The increase is thought to be due in part to the Canadian government’s lack of a visa requirement for visitors from certain countries such as Mexico, allowing migrants to avoid the much busier southern border, where 13 times as many stops took place last year compared with the entire northern U.S. border.

In announcing the task force, Sununu also referenced arrests of people on the terrorism watch list, an intelligence database of more than 1 million known and suspected terrorists, plus people with ties to them, such as family members. Critics say that there is a lack of transparency as to the list’s standards, that people are left on it for years after they are considered a threat and that people can be mistaken for someone on the list because they have a similar name.

Last year, 484 people on the watch list were stopped at ports of entry along the northern border, compared with 80 at the southern border, according to CBP data. Between ports of entry, Border Patrol stopped 169 people on the list at the southern border, compared with three at the northern border.

“The Federal Government refuses to take action on our Northern Border,” Sununu wrote in an Oct. 19 news release announcing the task force. “They cut funding, limited our resources, and have thrown their hands up. Without adequate federal support, the state is stepping up.”

Sununu’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

CBP spokeswoman Jacqueline Wasiluk did not comment on Sununu’s task force, but said in a statement that “securing the northern border requires a different mixture of facilities, operations, infrastructure, and technology resources from those appropriate to the southwest and coastal borders because the operating environment and the nature of illegal activity faced on the northern border are different.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and other immigrant advocacy groups opposed the task force, calling it a fear tactic to address a manufactured crisis. The ACLU sued CBP last May, seeking New Hampshire border arrest data after neither Sununu’s office nor the New Hampshire Department of Safety could provide data to support claims that unauthorized border crossings in the state had increased. The lawsuit is now in settlement discussions.

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire, said he worries the border task force will lead to increased racial profiling. With New Hampshire’s North Country a popular destination for hiking and backpacking, he questioned how law enforcement will tell the difference between a hiker and a migrant.

Eva Castillo, director of the New Hampshire Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees, said campaigning ahead of the New Hampshire primary has highlighted proposals that would harm immigrants like herself, who already feel marginalized in the state.

“With all the candidates here, nobody’s talking about what they’re gonna do good for the country. They’re all talking about what they’re gonna do to hurt immigrants,” she said.

Castillo and other advocates have fought for years against state legislation that would prohibit cities from adopting sanctuary policies. A version of the bill for the current legislative session was introduced earlier this month, as well as legislation that would require federal funds for refugee resettlement to first be spent on U.S. citizens.

State legislators are also considering a bill that would compel certain businesses to use E-Verify, a system that helps employers confirm whether their new hires have lawful work authorization. Critics of E-Verify say it is prone to errors and has flagged authorized employees as unauthorized. Another bill would make it illegal for undocumented immigrants with out-of-state licenses to drive in New Hampshire, where they’re unable to be licensed.

Pastor Kevin McBride of Raymond Baptist Church, located east of Manchester, joined evangelical church leaders from Iowa and South Carolina on a call this month to urge presidential candidates not to attack immigrants without legal status while on the campaign trail. He said he sees the number of southern border arrivals as a crisis that must be alleviated through sweeping fixes to the immigration system. But he said the national rhetoric that focuses on safety and security fails to treat people with compassion and respect.

McBride said he hasn’t decided what he thinks about the northern border task force. For most New Hampshire residents, it just isn’t on their radar, he said.

“Predominantly people think of southern border, the wall, rather than northern border in their backyard,” he said of immigration policy. “Any attention to the northern border is an, ‘Oh, by the way,’ rather than an intentional focus.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s New Hampshire Republican presidential primary, former President Trump maintains a 19-percentage-point lead over Haley with 55% of the vote, according to a Suffolk University/NBC10 Boston/Boston Globe tracking poll released Sunday. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was a distant third with just 6% of the vote, suspended his campaign Sunday and has endorsed Trump.

Last month, Trump was roundly condemned by President Biden and those in his own party after saying at a Durham, N.H., campaign event that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” echoing the language of Nazism and white supremacy. He has vowed mass detentions and deportations if reelected, coupled with significant immigration restrictions including banning entry for people from certain Muslim-majority countries.

“Day One of my new administration, I will seal the border,” he told supporters at a campaign rally in Portsmouth, N.H., on Wednesday.

At a meet and greet Thursday in Hollis, Haley told her audience that “securing the border is priority No. 1.”

Haley said that as president she would defund sanctuary cities, increase the number of federal agents patrolling the border and reinstitute a Trump-era program that required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their cases were resolved in immigration court. Haley also said she would implement a national expansion of E-Verify.

After the event, Hollis resident Greg Smolka said he thought Haley presented common sense solutions.

“The Mexican border is ridiculous right now and it’s an abdication of responsibility,” he said, adding that he’s concerned about the northern border as well, though less so.

But Smolka, along with several other residents interviewed by The Times, said he hadn’t heard about the northern border task force.

Maggie Fogarty, New Hampshire program director of the American Friends Service Committee, said this is the first primary election in years in which the Quaker social justice organization hasn’t spent time engaging Republican voters and candidates on the topic of immigration.

“This time around it just seems like there’s very little hope of inserting into the presidential primary narrative meaningful messages that center the rights of immigrants,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be a way to reframe or shift the national narrative on immigration. It’s just so toxic and violent.”

At a Pentecostal church in Nashua, N.H., a handful of students braved the snow Wednesday for an English class offered through a local Latino community center. Among them was Francisco Banks, 67, who said he also hadn’t heard about the northern border task force.

Banks, who moved to the U.S. 40 years ago from the Dominican Republic, said he keeps up with the news but that there is a vacuum of local public information available in Spanish. He recalled going on a trip years ago to the White Mountains near the northern border with Canada and getting pulled over by agents who demanded his identification.

“It was a bit traumatic,” he said.

Banks identifies as an independent and said that if Trump becomes the Republican presidential nominee, he will vote against him. Latinos shouldn’t be treated so badly by the president, he said.

Back in the North Country, Linda White, who owns Parsons Street Suites, a bed and breakfast 10 miles from the border in Colebrook, said she’s most concerned about drugs — especially fentanyl — being transported across the border. Last year, federal agents confiscated 687 pounds of drugs across the tri-state border sector that includes New Hampshire, but no fentanyl, according to CBP data.

More than four times as many drugs were seized at the U.S.-Mexico border than at the U.S.-Canada border. Wasiluk, the CBP spokesperson, said more than 90% of fentanyl seized by CBP is brought through ports of entry along the southern border.

White, 67, said that local police departments are strained, so more law enforcement presence under the task force will make her feel safer.

“There needed to be resources and I really commend Sununu for doing that,” she said. “A lot of times we’re the forgotten part of the state.”

But down the street at Hicks Hardware, Tracy Bagley, 60, who was working the cash register, wasn’t so sure an increase in law enforcement would be a good thing for the community.

“They already have a lot of police officers in town,” she said. “Put ‘em to use. Don’t bring more.”

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