The lights of the Rochester train station cast a harsh glare in the October night outside Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited as passengers watched an unsettling tableau unfold on the platform.
Two U.S. Border Patrol agents gripped the handcuffed arms of a Latino-looking man as they escorted him to a waiting car. Minutes earlier, the agents had moved through the train, obviously on a search, although it's doubtful that most of the passengers knew who they were or what they were seeking. The reasons became clear in the bluish-white light of the platform as the agents led the man away.
"At least it's not me," a passenger muttered to no one in particular as he made his way down the train's aisle after taking in the scene.
The U.S. Border Patrol opened a satellite office outside of Rochester almost two years ago and started conducting random but frequent searches of the Lake Shore Limited early last spring. This is a train that runs between Chicago and New York City. It goes near the U.S./Canada border at its stop in Buffalo, but never actually leaves the country. The agents are searching for illegal immigrants and suspected terrorists, and in doing so, are operating within their legal 100-mile interior margin from the border.
The Border Patrol's Buffalo office responded to questions about the program earlier this year but declined to disclose how many people it had removed from the Lake Shore Limited, or why this particular train had been selected for the program when Amtrak runs numerous other trains through upstate New York.
The Buffalo spokesman also declined to discuss how many of those people were suspected of being illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. simply so that they could find work, and how many were suspected of having entered the country intending to commit or help plan an act of terrorism.
Word of the Amtrak searches has spread and triggered a growing outcry among farmworker advocates and civil libertarians in upstate New York, who fear that the program will sweep up people who are here legitimately but who happen not to be carrying the paperwork to prove it -- a not-uncommon occurrence with migrant farmworkers.
"It's ineffective on the trains, and I think the bigger issue is what kind of culture we're creating here," said Richard Witt, executive director of the Rural and Migrant Ministries, a statewide nonprofit outreach group that has worked with New York's migrant communities, including farmworkers, for 25 years.
As activists have started to ask questions such as this, the Border Patrol has become even less forthcoming about the program. The Buffalo office referred a recent inquiry for information to the agency's national headquarters in Washington, D.C. A spokesman there said he was unable to answer questions because he could not reach the necessary people for answers.
It is unlikely that the national spokesman would have provided specifics about the Lake Shore Limited searches even if he had reached the right people, because agencies and officials in the Bush administration have demonstrated a sustained pattern of sealing off details about homeland security programs, under the general response that to provide any information would jeopardize national security.
So for the indefinite time being, Amtrak passengers trying to travel across upstate New York must resign themselves to the likelihood of frequent delays of what Amtrak spokeswoman Karina Romero says are usually 20 to 25 minutes on the Lake Shore Limited while the Border Patrol searches the train.
That's an inconvenience, but anyone who chooses to ride Amtrak already knows that inexplicable, unpredictable delays are part of the ticket price. Most Amtrak passengers would probably be quite satisfied if they knew up front that they faced only one fairly predictable delay of not quite a half hour.
So if the Border Patrol searches are likely to be a minor annoyance to 99 percent of the passengers, why should that silent majority care, or even bother to look out the window as the Border Patrol wraps up its night's work?
Because, as Witt notes, these searches at best raise questions about their efficiency and effectiveness. At worst, they raise questions about their humaneness, a word that hasn't gotten much attention at the federal level in recent years. There has to be a better way to discourage illegal immigration than to seize people one at a time and hustle them off a train.
Unquestionably, the United States needs to protect its citizens and its infrastructure against people who have already demonstrated their desire to destroy our country and kill as many of its citizens as possible.
It's also unfair to ask the thousands of people who enter legally every year to look the other way while we try to figure out how to make Mexico a country where working people want to live instead of flee.
But the Amtrak searches almost certainly are not going to protect us from terrorism or illegal immigrants. Imagine the potential terrorists who might consider entering the country from Canada and traveling east across the vast reaches of upstate New York to our largest coastal centers. Does anyone really think these people would consign themselves to the uncertain fate of a long train ride, where they would be sitting ducks?
As for the illegal farmworkers -- and it's a safe bet that everyone the Border Patrol has caught so far on the Lake Shore Limited falls into this category -- pulling one or two people a day off the train is going to be about as effective in stopping the flood of illegal immigration across the Mexican/U.S. border as destroying a single patch of marijuana has been in the War on Drugs.
The train searches are one more reminder of how the federal presence is making itself felt more often in upstate and Western New York in the debate about how best to secure the Northern border. Local officials and representatives are also struggling with the issue, but they're considering how to do that without also destroying the long history of commerce and commuting.
A number of regional organizations and leaders oppose the federal government's present plan to require people entering the United States from Canada to show passports and have instead proposed other forms of government-issued identification that would be more affordable than a $97 passport.
No one is outright questioning the need for border security. If a reminder is needed, it can be found in the case of Ahmed Ressam, known as "the Millennium Bomber" for his foiled plot to bomb Los Angeles Airport on New Year's Eve in 1999. Customs officials arrested Ressam at the border at Port Angeles, Wash., and found bomb-making materials hidden in his car.
But opponents to the passport proposal say it could cost the United States untold millions of tourist and trade dollars a year, and would do little to protect a border that can be crossed on foot or by boat, no questions asked, in countless places other than the official entry points.
"We're struggling to make the case, 'We've had this peaceful border up for 200 years, and we like to think of it as the same area, separated by a river,' " says U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, whose 28th District includes a 100-mile stretch of Lake Ontario shoreline and parts of downtown Buffalo, and who has pushed for major reforms to the present passport proposal.
"The problem is, the border's always been open. We've taken great pride in the fact that we've gone and come back so easily."
Luke Rich, a senior consultant on transportation and border issues at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, puts it more bluntly. "The border can't be secured. That is the bottom line -- this border can't be secured," Rich says. "Our goal is to get as many Canadians to come across to spend their money as possible. That's not the goal in Mexico."
The Partnership's position is that whatever system is devised, it should provide as much security as a passport but be readily available and either affordable or free.
As officials debate this issue, however, the Amtrak searches continue. And in a predominantly Catholic region, where many people adhere to the church's teachings on charity and social justice, it's difficult not to ask, "Isn't there a better way to do this?"
The Rev. Ivan Trujillo is a Bolivian-born priest with the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo who is based in Batavia and whose ministry focuses on the migrant farmworker population and the people held in the federal detention center and local prisons. He does not ask people for a Green Card before he responds to a call for help or a request to celebrate a Mass.
Many of the 3,000 or so farmworkers he works with each summer are young men from extremely rural parts of Central America who never realize that they might be asked at any time to prove that they have the right to be here. It's entirely possible, Trujillo says, that a young farmworker would board an Amtrak train completely unprepared to prove his temporary status.
"Many of them even do not know how to write or read," Trujillo says. "They don't know the language. They don't realize somebody would be asking. They don't think about too many things -- just work."
For now, that overheard comment muttered by the young man who watched the seizure of an Amtrak passenger -- "At least it's not me" -- applies to most people riding the trains. But what if this program signals the approach of a time when all of us will be expected to prove our citizenship or legal status in random spot checks? What then? We might all end up wishing that we had instead asked, "What if that was me?"