Gov. Phil Scott says Vermont will not cooperate with a federal crackdown on immigration that calls on state and local officials to aid in heightened border-security measures. And he says his administration is "exploring a legal challenge" to executive orders signed by President Donald Trump last week.
With his announcement Monday night, Scott becomes one of the highest-profile Republicans in the country to join the legal fight against efforts by President Donald Trump to restrict the flow of refugees and other immigrants into the United States.
Today on Vermont Edition: A Closer Look At Trump's Executive Orders On Immigration, And The Effect In Vermont
“I understand public safety is a primary concern of any government. It’s primary concern of mine as well,” Scott told VPR Tuesday morning. “But I believe these executive orders extend beyond that concern. It’s overreach. And we all have a great fear of terrorists … entering our country. But I think this is the wrong way to go about it.”
Scott is referring to executive orders signed by Trump last week, one of which, according to Scott, seeks to enlist state and local law-enforcement authorities in immigration enforcement.
The order authorizes state and local law enforcement officials “to perform the functions of immigration officers in relation to the investigation, apprehension, or detention of aliens in the United States under the direction and the supervision of the Secretary.”
Scott says Trump’s order essentially “asks the states to deputize in some cases state law-enforcement officers and local law-enforcement partners as well.”
“And we feel we aren’t going to do that as a state,” Scott says. “We feel that’s the obligation of the federal government, and we aren’t going to enter into that agreement with the federal government, with the president."
Scott says he’s ordered his legal counsel to work with the Vermont attorney general “to assess the constitutionality of the executive orders,” and says he has concerns about “the impact of the broad policy proclamations contained in the border security and immigration enforcement orders on the Fourth and Tenth Amendments.”
Scott says he’s “exploring a legal challenge to the orders.”
Trump signed three immigration-related executive orders last week, including one that imposes a temporary ban on immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The order appears to have quashed plans to resettle 100 Syrian refugees in Rutland this year.
Scott says he appreciates the domestic-security concerns that prompted Trump’s orders.
“I understand their fear. I want our country to be safe as well,” Scott says. “But once you start eroding our civil rights and liberties, what’s next? And I think we have to be very, very careful when we infringe upon a state’s rights, and so I think we need to protect them.”
In the meantime, Scott says he wants to make sure that Vermont isn’t complicit in “any action that we believe violates Constitutional rights, or infringes upon the rights of Vermont as a sovereign state.” And he says he won’t allow the state to enter into agreements with the federal government that ask state law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law.
Scott is calling on Vermont lawmakers to assist in the effort by pursuing legislation “to prohibit local officials” from “carrying out additional actions under the executive order that may ultimately be deemed unconstitutional or infringe on the rights of Vermonters.”
Immigration and legal experts are still working to interpret the meaning and effect of Trump’s orders. Scott says his administration is convening a “Civil Rights and Criminal Justice Cabinet” that will review the executive orders, and try to “identify areas that are not in compliance with current state or Constitutional law and make recommendations to the Governor.”
The cabinet with include Scott’s legal counsel, Secretary of Human Services Al Gobeille, Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbets, Commissioner of Public Safety Thomas Anderson, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, Attorney General TJ Donovan, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, Defender General Matt Valerio, and John Campbell.
The cabinet will also include a mayor, law-enforcement officials and someone representing county state’s attorneys.
Trump’s executive orders include provisions that would impose financial sanctions on co-called “sanctuary cities,” or other jurisdictions deemed out of compliance with immigration-enforcement policies.
Scott says “there’s a lack of clarity on what a sanctuary city or state would mean.” He says he appreciates the concern some people will have about the impact of his actions on federal funding for Vermont.
“And I fear as well,” Scott says. “Half of our budget is built on federal funding. But I believe we have legal standing to protect us against this.”
But Scott says he’s not asking Vermont law-enforcement authorities to violate any state or federal laws, and that the state shouldn’t be at risk of losing federal money.
“I believe that we’re on good standing there,” Scott says. “There’s precedent to prohibit the federal government from coercing states into actions like this, and using money to manipulate the states. So that’s a concern, but … I believe the Tenth Amendment prohibits that overreach.”
Scott says his administration is reaching out to the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Homeland Security “for further clarification” on each of Trump’s orders, and “how they relate to Vermont’s sizable refugee and immigrant populations.”
Scott can unilaterally stop state police from enforcing federal immigration laws. But he doesn’t have the power to prohibit town and city police forces in Vermont from participating in Trump’s border-security initiative, which is why he’s exploring the potential for legislation to that effect.
Democratic leaders in the Statehouse say they’re open to the idea. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe says the Legislature’s actions will be guided by a simple question.
“What proactive efforts need to be made to make sure we aren’t violating all of the core principles that this country was founded on?” Ashe says. “And that, I think, is what working with the administration, through this cabinet, we will be able to tease out.”
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson says constituents are counting on their lawmakers to focus on state-level concerns, like the budget, affordable housing and health care.
“But part of what they need as well is to be in a state that belongs to a union that respects people and honors civil rights,” Johnson says. “For us to do nothing would make us bystanders to injustice.”
Scott’s plan has backing from many Republican lawmakers as well. Senate Minority Leader Dustin Degree says he wants to preserve the state’s good working relationship with the Customs and Border Protection officers stationed on the Vermont/Canada border. But Degree says he’s ready to hear the case for state-level legislation.
“So I’m incredibly proud of the governor for the steps that he’s taken to protect those communities in Vermont, and hopefully to protect those communities going forward, as much as we can here in our small state,” Degree says.
House Minority Leader Don Turner, however, isn’t so sure about the merits of legislative intervention. Turner says he has concerns about the impact of Trump’s orders. But he says the November election was a message.
“You know, I think that the country wants a new direction,” Turner says. “We have a new president.”
Turner says lawmakers have enough on their plates already, and ought not be distracted from pressing fiscal issues.
“We have a congressional delegation. They’ve got some work to do. I’m hoping that this body will focus on what’s going on in this state,” Turner says.
Update 8:45 a.m. 1/31/17 This post has been updated to include additional reporting.
Update 5:07 p.m. 1/31/17 This post has been updated to include reaction from legislative leaders.