House lawmakers advanced a bill Tuesday that tries to limit the role of Vermont police in federal immigration-enforcement activities. And while the proposal has won support across party lines in Montpelier, some Republicans say they worry the legislation could undermine border security.
It fell to Rep. Chip Conquest, a Democrat from Newbury, to present the bill on the House floor Tuesday, and defend its merit. Conquest said that, put simply, the legislation is a defense of Vermont values.
“In particular this bill can be thought of as a statement about the value we place on the cultural heritage and diversity of all our residents, and our unwillingness to discriminate against anyone on the basis of certain personally identifying information,” Conquest said.
Republican Gov. Phil Scott has led the charge for the legislation, which would prohibit state and local police from enforcing federal immigration laws, unless Scott signs off on agreement allowing them to do so. Scott has said he thinks Trump's orders may violate the U.S. Constitution.
The bill also prevents state agencies from sending personally identifying information to the federal government, if that information would be used to create a national registry based on religion, immigration status, nation of origin or sexual orientation.
“That, I would hope, is something that would be repugnant to all of us,” Conquest said.
Lawmakers took up the bill in the wake of executive orders signed by President Donald Trump, orders that, in part, contemplate increased roles for state and local police in intensified border-security initiatives. Trump has also publicly contemplated the creation of a national registry of Muslims.
The bill sailed through the Senate, where all 30 members, including seven Republicans, voted in favor of the bill. But the bill has encountered GOP resistance in the House, where some lawmakers have balked at the idea of legislating against a registry that doesn’t even exist.
“What I’m hearing is that this bill is a solution to a problem that don’t exist?” Milton Rep. Ron Hubert, a Republican, asked Conquest Tuesday.
“In a manner of speaking, yes, it’s being sort of proactive,” Conquest said.
Hubert said he’s concluded that the legislation is less about immigration policy than it was about political grandstanding.
“This is just a slap at the administration in Washington, no more, no less,” Hubert said. “And I can’t support this.”
Irasburg Rep. Vicki Strong, a Republican, said she thinks supporters of the bill underestimate the threat posed by foreign enemies.
“We’ve forgotten we’re in a war on terrorism, and I don’t take that lightly. My son Jesse died in Iraq,” Strong said.
Strong’s son, Marine Sgt. Jesse Strong, was killed in action on Jan. 26, 2005, in a roadside attack.
“We have young men like my son who have given their lives for freedom, and yet we need to protect our freedom. So it’s a tough balance, and I’m not confident that what we passed just now has that balance of safety plus compassion,” Strong said.
But more Republicans voted for the bill than against it on Tuesday — they supported it by a count of 25-24. The overall vote total was 110-24. And members of the GOP caucus offered some of the most poignant defenses of the legislation.
Northfield Republican Anne Donahue recalled Vermont’s role in the eugenics movement, which used registries to target people based on nation of origin or disability status.
“I think there are times that there is a need to be proactive, that there is a need to say this is not something that we will participate or be active in,” Donahue said, referencing the possibility of national Muslim registry.
Republican Rep. Kurt Wright says that, for him, the bill expresses a commitment to humanity.
“The only thing I need to think about is the picture that we all saw of the 4-year-old boy in Aleppo with the blood rolling down his face,” Wright said. “I don’t need any other examples than that.”
But Wright says voters shouldn’t confuse concern about Trump’s orders with disdain for increased border security more generally.
“And we can want to help that little 4-year-old boy in Aleppo and others like him, but also be concerned about security,” Wright said. “And that doesn’t mean that anybody who has concerns about security is a bigot, is a racist, is a xenophobe.”
Democrats called the bill an affirmation of Vermont’s belief in the value of immigrants, whether they’re in the country legally or not. And they noted that the bill does not prohibit state or local law-enforcement agencies from collaborating with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents, only from enforcing federal laws on those agents’ behalves.
“This bill is not a political statement, it’s about promoting the Vermont values that we all hold dear,” said Burlington Rep. Barbara Rachelson.
Rep. Janet Ancel recalled the passage of resolutions in the towns she represents — Marshfield, Plainfield and Calais — related to sanctuary-city designations intended to guard against the deportation of undocumented immigrants living in those communities.
In listening to the debates over those resolutions, Ancel said she was “struck by what it actually means to say that we’re all connected in some way to the presence of immigrants in our state.”
“We’re talking about our ancestors. We’re talking about parents, our grandparents, members of our families,” Ancel said. “And what we realize now is that there are members of our communities who live in fear of persecution on the basis of religious grounds or the country of origin. This isn’t the country I want to live in and I’m grateful it isn’t the state I live in.”
Ancel said she doesn’t think the bill goes far enough. But she said it’s a “serious and concrete step in the right direction.”
“It aligns our laws and our practices with our values,” Ancel said. “It’s a message, a clear message to those who live in fear of persecution in our state that we have their backs.”
Jay Diaz, a staff attorney at the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the legislation doesn’t provide the kind of immigrant protections his organization had hoped to see. Diaz says the bill is a useful symbolic gesture.
“Where the bill is lacking is in the substantive protections that it should offer immigrants,” Diaz says.
The bill prohibits state and local police agencies from entering into what are known as "287 agreements" with federal authorities, agreements that essentially deputize local police as federal immigration-enforcement agents. It does not, however, sever the enforcement link between local jurisdiction and federal authorities.
“It’s been a common misconception that the bill is going to stop the collaboration between local law enforcement and ICE. What the bill does is just stop the formal collaboration,” Diaz says.
Diaz says lawmakers could provide more substantive protections to undocumented immigrants by prohibiting local police from alerting federal authorities to the whereabouts of people who are in the country illegally. That kind of information sharing will continue, Diaz says, under the legislation approved Tuesday.