Newlyweds Accuse Border Patrol of Ruining Their Wedding in St. Albans
Talk about wedding crashers. Newlyweds Danielle and Thierno Diallo of Essex claim that last Saturday night their wedding in St. Albans was "ruined" by Border Patrol agents, who showed up at their reception and began questioning the wedding party and guests about their immigration status. The couple claims that the federal response occurred for no other reason than that many of their guests had dark skin and African accents.
However, Border Patrol tells a very different story. According to Mark Henry, operations officer for U.S. Border Patrol's Swanton sector, his agents were simply responding to a call about "multiple suspicious individuals on Main Street in St. Albans" congregating around a "closed or abandoned store or building."
According to the newlyweds' account, which they told at a Wednesday afternoon press conference, the evening started out as a joyous occasion. Danielle, 31, is white, grew up in Winooski and currently works as a hair salon manager in Burlington. She says the wedding ceremony was held in front of the fountain in Taylor Park in St. Albans and went off without a hitch. It was followed immediately thereafter by a traditional African drumming ceremony.
Afterwards, the guests proceeded to a reception at the St. Albans clubhouse of the Vermont Voltage, a semi-pro soccer team that Thierno plays for and coaches. Thierno, 28, is black and originally from Guinea, west Africa. He spent most of his formative years in France before moving to Vermont in 2001 and still speaks with an African accent. He's been with the Vermont Voltage soccer team since 2002, is active in the St. Albans community and has permanent resident status in the United States.
There were no initial signs of trouble brewing, though Danielle recalls that after the ceremony, a few young passersby in cars shouted racial epithets at the newlyweds and their guests and told them to "go home."
But the Diallos say that things didn't really get ugly until about 9:30 p.m. That's when, he claims, more than a half-dozen Border Patrol units showed up at their reception site and began questioning the groom and his guests outside about their immigration status.
"We're not quite sure why they showed up," Danielle reports. "They just showed up and proceeded to ask for papers... and questioned the legality of people attending our wedding."
"I've attended a lot of weddings in St. Albans," Thierno adds "I've never seen immigration coming in and asking people 'Why are you here and where are you coming from?'"
Thierno says he was told by the officers that they'd received a complaint about guests from Africa and said "We are just trying to do our job."
He estimates that Border Patrol was on the scene for about 30-45 minutes. None of the 70 wedding goers, about half of whom were from other states, Canada or Africa, were arrested or detained and no citations were issued.
Nevertheless, the couple says the damage was already done. "Because of that, my ceremony went sour and everybody left," Thierno says. "The whole party went down automatically." They were "very rude and very persistent." He says many of their visitors left without eating or drinking and the food had to be tossed the following day.
"I think people didn't want to deal with embarrassing moments of being dragged outside and paperwork being displayed," says Danielle. "It's a level of harassment that people deal with on a regular basis. It's not something you want to do at a wedding."
But Border Patrol's account of the incident differs dramatically from the one told by the newlyweds. Officer Henry claims that the incident actually took place at "around 10, 10:30," and he had no more than three agents on the scene. According to his records, Border Patrol agents were there for "about five minutes" before they learned what was going on. Henry believes that no other law enforcement agents responded to the scene and no arrests or citations were issued. He did say, however, that there was "quite a bit of alcohol involved," and his agents were concerned about the wedding guests getting home safely.
What about the wedding party and their guests being asked about their immigration status?
"No, that's not correct," says Henry. "Our agents arrived on the scene, based on a citizens' complaint, saw a large group of people, about 15, outside the building... and approached the group. Two people separated from the group, talked to our agents, and found out what was going on. And, we left. They were there for about five minutes."
Accusations of racial profiling by Vermont law enforcement are by no means a new problem. Anti-racism activists in Vermont have been very outspoken about the issue in recent years, and have made some progress in improving police sensitivity to the issue. Both the Middlebury and Burlington police departments have adopted bias-free policing policies in recent years, which direct officers to not inquire about a person's immigration status unless there's a pressing reason to do so.
For his part, Thierno says his wedding affair was only the latest in a long string of racial profiling incidents by Vermont law enforcement. According to his wife, "He probably gets pulled over 10 times a year" for no apparent reason.
Most recently, Theirno reports that a man in Red Square, a bar on Burlington's Church Street Marketplace, made a racial remark to him as he walked inside. Not wanting a confrontation, Thierno says he left the bar but was followed outside. The man then flashed a badge, claimed he was from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and threatened to arrest Thierno.
When asked why they decided to go public about their most recent experience, the Diallos said that they want Vermonters to know how common such occurrences are.
"A lot of our guests came from out of state and unfortunately, they're leaving with a very sour taste of how people from other countries are treated in Vermont," she said. "It gives us a very bad reputation that we're close-minded."
The couple said they haven't decided whether to pursue legal action. They did say, however, that they want things to change so things are better for the next generation.
"We have a 3-year-old daughter who's obviously biracial," Danielle says, "and we don't want her growing up feeling pressured by anything because she has a father who's an immigrant. It shouldn't be that way."