Border Patrol Agents Sean O’Loughlin, seated, and Sean Morris, at the helm, patrol the North Lake Thoroughfare along the U.S.-Canadian border near the town of Orient. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

HOULTON — Take a scroll through the official Twitter page for the new chief patrol agent for the U.S. Border Patrol in Maine and you’ll find frequent references to crimes by undocumented immigrants and #BuildTheWall.

Jason Owens, who took over as chief patrol agent for the U.S. Border Patrol in Maine in February, said the posts aren’t meant to drum up fear or paint an inaccurate picture of immigrants as criminals.

Instead, he says, they go back to the border patrol’s overall mission: to stop people from coming into the country who want to do it harm.

“The point is to educate folks and to say there are a large number of people simply seeking a better way of life, but that’s not the entirety of the population, and that’s why we’re here,” he said.

Chief Patrol Agent Jason D. Owens poses for a photo at the Houlton Sector headquarters of the U.S. Border Patrol in Hodgdon. Owens was appointed chief patrol agent of the Houlton Sector, which covers all of Maine, in February. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The philosophy is part of a larger vision Owens has as the new leader for the border patrol in what the agency designates as the Houlton Sector, one of 20 border patrol regions in the country.

It includes all of Maine and 611 miles of U.S.-Canada border running from the New Hampshire state line to a point in between Lubec and Canada’s Grand Manan Island.

The sector is also part of a larger agency that in recent months has been in the national spotlight because of President Trump’s proposed reforms aimed at combating illegal immigration and a humanitarian crisis as record numbers of families try to enter the U.S.

The southwest border has seen a spike in apprehensions of undocumented immigrants this year, totaling 760,370 so far compared with 479,371 total in 2014 – the next highest number in the last seven years, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.

And the new chief in Maine comes from the Laredo Sector, which encompasses more than 100,000 square miles in northeast and southwest Texas, and has been at the forefront of responding to the new migrants.

He now finds himself in rural Maine, surrounded by potato fields and snow, and in charge of an area that last year had 52 apprehensions of undocumented immigrants compared with Laredo’s 32,641.

“I had never thought about living in Maine, never given it much thought at all,” said Owens, who earns a salary of $160,000 and said he was asked to take the post by U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I’m a good trooper so I said, ‘Absolutely. I’ll go where you need me to go,’ and I have not regretted it one bit.”

In Maine, Owens plans to increase transportation hub checks, which have been controversial here and elsewhere, and traffic checkpoints like a three-day, 24-hour checkpoint that was recently held on Interstate 95 in Sherman.

He says those steps are a means of maximizing the border patrol’s resources and cutting off criminals at central locations, although the checks have been criticized by some immigration advocates.

“Frequent Border Patrol checkpoints on the road and on buses would only serve to heighten the climate of fear already advanced by this administration,” said Julia Brown, an advocacy and outreach attorney for the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project. “Because of these checkpoints, people can be afraid to leave their homes, to go to work, and to travel at all, regardless of status.”

Sitting in a conference room at the Maine headquarters in Hodgdon, Owens pointed to a map on the wall highlighting a lack of roads in the northernmost parts of the state and a coastline that if stretched out would total about 3,500 miles.

“The mission is the same,” he said. “The difference is the vulnerabilities that exist up here are much more vast and the threat that comes at us is not the volume of the flow. It’s not thousands and thousands (of people), but what we do see is when someone comes across the border it’s typically of greater concern or greater interest to us.”

In April, the border patrol reported that 60 percent of apprehensions along the southwest border to date have been families and unaccompanied children, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

In contrast, Owens said those who cross the border illegally in Maine are more likely to have criminal or terrorism ties or be involved in the drug trade.

He takes over at a time when the border patrol has come under scrutiny after reports of squalid conditions at migrant detention centers and reports of misconduct by some.

Last month ProPublica reported on a secret border patrol Facebook page called “I’m 10-15,” a reference to the radio code for “aliens in custody,” where members were found to be making racist and xenophobic posts, including a joke about migrant deaths and threats aimed at Democratic lawmakers.

The Intercept later reported that several border patrol supervisors, including Owens and Provost, the U.S. border patrol chief, were members of the page.

Owens acknowledged having been a member but condemned the controversial posts.

“This was not a secret page dedicated to bigotry and hate,” he said. “This was a private Facebook page whose membership was restricted to either active or retired border patrol agents or family members. There’s pages like that that exist all throughout Facebook, and the purpose for that page was to allow border patrol agents, retirees and families to stay in touch around the nation.”

“If guys got on there and got out of hand, that doesn’t represent everyone who was a member of that page and it doesn’t mean everyone who was on that page condones it. As a matter of fact, those guys that did that, it is all of our hopes they get held accountable for it because it’s not acceptable and it’s not representative of who we are.”

On his own Twitter page, Owens frequently uses the hashtag #BuildTheWall, which he said is not intended as a political statement but as a means of pointing people to information on the topic. He said he does support the construction of a southwest border wall, however.

“In the right areas, a wall or a physical barrier makes a huge difference,” he said. “Whenever a person makes an illegal entry across the border, we have a very short amount of time to resolve that situation. A physical barrier extends that time.”

Originally from Oklahoma, Owens previously served as assistant chief at the U.S. Border Patrol headquarters in Washington, D.C., and held leadership roles in sectors in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and the Rio Grande Valley before Laredo.

Border patrol is one of three agencies that fall under U.S. Customs and Border Protection and is responsible for security in between ports of entry. The others are Air and Marine Operations and the Office of Field Operations, which manages customs at ports of entry.

Agents at the six stations in Maine – which include Houlton, Van Buren, Jackman, Fort Fairfield, Calais and Rangeley – spend most of their time patrolling the border, whether on foot or by boat, ATV or snowmobile.

On a recent morning in the town of Orient, two agents loaded a patrol boat on North Lake and made their way up a small and winding brook. On their left were grassy marshes and the woods of the United States. To their right was Canada, marked by an occasional camp with a Canadian flag.

In parts of the brook, the water was low enough to walk across and the agents stopped to examine a trail leading to the water’s edge for signs of disturbance. Any human activity might be an indicator of a border crossing.

On land the northern border is marked by white pillars in an area agents refer to as the “slash,” where the woods have been cleared to make way for patrols.

Some parts are marked by a waist-high orange fence, but in other areas farmland straddles the border or there are no barriers at all.

In the early 2000s, the Houlton Sector was routinely making hundreds of apprehensions of undocumented immigrants, though Owens and others at the sector headquarters said that after 9/11 and the formation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the mission of the border patrol changed.

That led to an overall drop in the number of apprehensions nationwide as the border patrol shifted its focus away from immigration to national security and border safety.

Since November, about 15 percent to 20 percent of the more than 200 border patrol agents in Maine have been sent on shifts to the southern border to assist overwhelmed sectors, which Owens said has contributed to a need to maximize the agents it does have. The border patrol employs about 20,000 agents nationally and has a $14.4 billion overall budget.

In Maine, the ACLU has pushed for both Greyhound and Concord Coach Lines to stop consenting to warrantless searches by immigration officials on their buses and has pointed out that under the Fourth Amendment, citizens have the right to refuse consent to a warrantless search or decline to comment when asked about immigration status.

Border patrol officials have argued they have the authority to conduct citizenship checks without a warrant within 100 miles of the nation’s land and coastal borders, which includes the entire state of Maine.

Rachel Healy, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Maine, condemned Owens’ plans to increase such checks.

“Mr. Owens seems fixated on ramping up unconstitutional tactics that make us all less free,” she said in a written statement. “Warrant-less citizenship checks on buses and at traffic stops create a ‘show me your papers’ society and deliberately target people of color and people with accents. It’s time for us all to stop accepting that border patrol is somehow justified in shrugging off the Constitution.”

Instead of contributing to fear, Owens said he sees the checks as an opportunity for the public to interact with agents and understand their work.

In an unusual step earlier this summer, he appeared at a town hall meeting in Portland to address an influx of asylum seekers from African countries arriving in Maine. At the meeting, he praised Maine’s response to the asylum seekers, calling it “heartwarming” and “an amazing thing to watch.”

Being out in the community is important, he said, especially in Maine, where there are fewer agents to patrol a vast area and the agency relies heavily on tips and partnerships with other law enforcement.

In Houlton, it’s not unusual for agents to know the names of the people they pass on their daily patrols or to stop and chat with residents or farmers.

“A good part of the population is law enforcement of the federal variety,” said Emily Harvey, whose husband works for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at the Houlton station. She said she frequently travels across the border to go out to dinner, get a manicure or just go for a drive.

“Your typical everyday citizen, we really don’t see (changes to immigration policy),” Harvey said. “It really doesn’t affect us. As wives of some of these guys, we’re privy to some of the stories. But as everyday people we don’t see it.”

And for some agents, working up north can be a reprieve after long days on the southern border.

Sean Morris, a vessel commander who spent 10 years with the border patrol in Arizona before coming to Houlton three years ago, described finding children in the desert without parents and an environment that was often hostile to border patrol.

“The northern border in general is like, ‘Hey, look ma, I made it,'” he said. “You did your time on the southern border and you get to go do a lot of different stuff here, whereas on the southern border you’re being overrun every day.”


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