hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues April 2017


In Vermont, many moves to shield immigrants

State, towns push back against federal crackdown


Contributing writer


Vermonters have lately been taking action at the state and local levels to push back against a federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants – and to oppose any effort by the federal government to create a registry of Muslims.

Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, signed a bill into law late last month that gave his office and the state attorney general oversight of any agreements between state and local law enforcement and federal authorities over immigration issues.

The new law, which passed unanimously in the state Senate and by a large margin in the House, specifically prohibits Vermont law enforcement from collecting and relaying to the federal government any personal information that could be used in a national database or registry.
Also last month, the state attorney general’s office sent a memo to all of Vermont’s cities and towns with guidelines for interaction between local law enforcement agencies and federal immigration officials. The memo specifies that local police should not be used for federal immigration enforcement.

And in several communities around the state, including in Bennington, voters at town meetings adopted resolutions declaring their communities safe for immigrants and refugees.
Supporters say these efforts are prompted by a desire to protect residents who are vulnerable to deportation or religious discrimination under policies being pushed by the Trump administration.
In an executive order issued Jan. 25, five days after he took office, President Trump directed state and local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with the federal government in deporting “all removable aliens.” Declaring that people who violate immigration laws represent “a significant threat to national security and public safety,” the order authorizes state and local agencies to carry out some functions of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The Trump administration also has threatened to withhold federal law enforcement funds from municipalities that don’t cooperate.


Separating civil, criminal cases
In guidelines issued March 6, state Attorney General T.J. Donovan informed Vermont law enforcement agencies that they “do not have any authority to enforce civil immigration law” and should not inquire about anyone’s immigration status unless that information is vital to a criminal investigation.

Although the state cannot prohibit state and local law enforcement from sharing information about a person’s immigration status with federal authorities, Vermont officers are under no obligation to comply with such requests and should not use their time or resources to do so, Donovan wrote.

The attorney general’s memo advised that the state and federal constitutions bar police from detaining anyone unless there is probable cause to believe that the person committed a crime. Donovan stressed that “it is not a criminal offense for an individual to be unlawfully present in the United States.”

Rather, he wrote, this constitutes a civil infraction -- and therefore does not rise to the threshold necessary for state and local police to detain someone. Complying with any federal request to detain someone over immigration violations, he advised, could violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure, which applies to all U.S. residents regardless of citizenship or immigration status.

The attorney general’s new guidelines expanded on the state’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy, issued last July, which mainly addressed racial and ethnic bias in policing. The 2016 policy statement included optional recommendations on how local law enforcement agencies should handle immigration issues.

Rutland City Police Chief Brian Kilcullen said his department has “adopted all the essential elements” of the state’s fair policing policy.
“We didn’t adopt the optional sections,” he added.

How the city handles the immigration questions, he suggested, will depend on the state’s policy and might also be influenced by the city’s change in administration as a result of last month’s mayoral election. Voters ousted incumbent Christopher Louras in favor of David Allaire, a city alderman who’d been critical of Louras’ push to resettle Syrian refugees in Rutland.

“The state may legislate those issues,” Kilcullen said. “We’ll also talk with the new mayor and the new city attorney.”

Kilcullen said federal immigration officials haven’t asked for his department’s assistance since he became chief in 2015, although he thought there might have been some joint investigations after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.


Thwarting a ‘Muslim registry’
Two days after his executive order on immigration enforcement, Trump issued an order banning travel to the U.S. by citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and temporarily barring refugees. The order, later revised to cover six countries, has so far been blocked in federal court, but it revived fears that the Trump administration might try to create a registry of Muslims in the United States. Trump had proposed such a registry during his presidential campaign, although he later backtracked from the idea.

After the election, an aide on Trump’s transition team said the administration might set up a registry similar to the National Security Exit-Entry Registration System, which operated from 2002 until it was suspended in 2012. The registry applied to men and boys over 16 who were in the United States on non-immigrant visas from 24 Muslim-majority countries that the Bush administration considered terrorist havens. More than 80,000 men were registered; although none were convicted of terrorism, many were deported for civil violations of their visas.
The threat of creating a similar registry was one of the motivations behind Vermont’s new state law that bars law enforcement agencies from collecting information about people’s religious beliefs or practices -- or disclosing that information to the federal government.

Although the law specifically addresses religious discrimination, it also applies to the state’s other protected categories, including race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. It cites Vermont and federal constitutional protections for privacy and religious affiliation and expression as well as state constitutional guarantees of equal benefits and protections.

Various sources estimate the number of Muslims in Vermont at about 3,200, or 0.05 percent of the population, with most living in the Burlington area. Many came to Vermont as refugees from Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq or Syria. The state has only one Islamic center for worship, in Colchester.
The new law also tightens state restrictions on cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agencies for the purposes of immigration enforcement by declaring that only the governor, in consultation with the state attorney general, has the power to make such agreements.

State Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who was the lead sponsor of the bill, said the new law doesn’t stop local police from working with federal authorities in criminal investigations.
“The governor and the attorney general were trying to respond to Trump’s travel ban and deportations,” Sears said. “We didn’t want local police to be deputized by the federal government.”

If the Bennington police, for example, started enforcing federal immigration rules, Sears said, “they wouldn’t be doing the job people in Bennington pay them to do.”

“And the federal government wouldn’t pay them” for doing federal agencies’ jobs, he added.
Sears said the feedback he received from constituents was that most favored the new law.
“Most people are trying to make sure Vermont is welcoming and people are protected,” he said. “Most people in Bennington were in favor of the bill. Some weren’t, but most were.”
Although the bill passed the Senate unanimously, 24 representatives in the 150-member House voted against it.

One local legislator who was opposed, State Rep. Thomas Terenzini, R-Rutland Town, made clear that preventing terrorism was foremost in his mind.

“We need to know who’s coming into the country,” Terenzini said. “I’m not in favor of a registry, but people need to be properly vetted.”

State Rep. Douglas Gage, R-Rutland City, who also voted against the bill, declined to discuss his reasoning when contacted.

Towns debate sanctuary status
At the local level, some cities and towns around the nation have responded to Trump’s immigration crackdown by declaring themselves “sanctuary” jurisdictions in which local police are directed not to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and not to question residents about their immigration status.

In Vermont, Burlington, Montpelier and Winooski are in the process of becoming sanctuary cities, and South Burlington is discussing the possibility. Elsewhere in the region, a group of citizens in Great Barrington, Mass., has petitioned for a May town meeting vote that would beef up local rules protecting immigrants, and a new citizens group in Columbia County, N.Y., has been pushing the sanctuary concept there.

At town meetings around Vermont last month, Bennington was one of several that adopted resolutions in support of immigrants and refugees.

Mary Gerisch, a member of the local chapter of Rights and Democracy Vermont, said her group organized a rally before Bennington’s town meeting vote at which 100 people turned out to hear U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, state Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington, and others speak out against Trump’s travel ban.

At town meeting, voters approved on a voice vote a nonbinding resolution that “our town shall be a safe sanctuary for all peoples including undocumented persons, immigrants and refugees.” The resolution also stated that Bennington would not support “any profiling, discrimination or other conduct” that might be imposed as a consequence of the presidential order.

Now the local Rights and Democracy group has submitted a proposal for a town immigration policy that the Bennington Select Board is expected to take up, perhaps as soon as this month.
“It’s based in part on the attorney general’s policy and the U.S. Human Rights Network,” Gerisch said. “We suggested a policy that embraces three aspects of what the state is doing.”

First, she said, “the Bennington police force won’t be deputized by ICE to pursue their agenda. That would take town resources to pursue an issue the town doesn’t think should be pursued.”
Second, Gerisch said, local police wouldn’t collect information on immigration status. And third, the town wouldn’t detain people for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement unless the detainer request was accompanied by a federal criminal warrant.

“The real idea is we want to be a welcoming community to everyone,” Gerisch said. “There’s a lot of fear generated by apprehension and lack of knowledge. Because of that fear, immigrants tend to be invisible. We want to embrace them so they feel comfortable.”

The Select Board has forwarded the group’s proposal to the town attorney for review.
“It will be put on the agenda for a future meeting and will be duly warned so people can come and comment,” Gerisch said.

Gerisch said she and others have been motivated to action by Trump’s executive order on immigration.

“There’s all this energy about, ‘Wait a minute, we don’t like what’s happening in our country,’” she said. “We want to use that energy at the state and local level.”