Migrant farmworkers say a new policy to encourage bias-free policing in Vermont could actually end up increasing cooperation between state law enforcement agencies and federal immigration authorities.
Last week, at a legislative hearing in Montpelier, Enrique Balcazar recounted to lawmakers, in Spanish, the day he was arrested last year by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in Burlington.
Balcazar, the spokesperson for the group Migrant Justice, spent 12 days in detention before being released. Some of his colleagues, he says, haven’t been so fortunate.
For the 1,500 or so migrants now working on Vermont’s dairy farms, the grand rewrite of the state’s fair and impartial policing policy was seen as a way to improve protections for people living here illegally. Instead, they say it’ll make life even more precarious.
“We believe, in our expertise and experience, that the current policy being contemplated by the Criminal Justice Training Council represents a significant loss of protections, particularly for immigrant Vermonters,” Will Lambek, an organizer at Migrant Justice, told lawmakers.
Their concerns are not academic.
Last August, a Franklin County sheriff’s deputy stopped a truck for a vehicle registration infraction.
When the deputy suspected the Spanish-speaking father and son inside that truck were in the country illegally, he radioed border patrol officers for backup.
“They spent six months in immigration prison and were recently deported,” Lambek says. “These were two dairy workers who had no criminal record, who had been living and working in the state of Vermont, supporting our state’s dairy industry.”
From the attorney general’s office to the upper echelons of the state police, law enforcement officials in Vermont generally agree that local police should not be in the business of aiding federal immigration enforcement.
But Assistant Attorney General David Scherr, who helped draft the new fair and impartial policing policy, says a policy that prohibits certain kinds of information sharing between state and federal authorities would run afoul of federal law, and endanger federal funding.
“There was a very serious effort to do the best we could to accommodate the concerns of the advocates, which we frankly, and I think the council in general, really did sympathize with,” Scherr says.
Scherr says there are good reasons the policy cannot impose a blanket prohibition on certain kinds of information-sharing, as advocates have called for.
“[Police] need to figure out who somebody is, where they might have gone, and you need to use all the tools available to you to to take care of that and to protect the victims involved, so we felt like those were reasonable carve outs,” Scherr says.
But Lambek says the new statewide fair and impartial policing policy does little to prevent officers from becoming de facto agents of federal immigration law.
“It will result in more collaboration between local law enforcement and federal deportation agent, and in more discrimination against immigrants working and living in the state of Vermont,” Lambek says.
The new policy, for example, allows local cops to share the immigration status of victims and witnesses of crimes with federal immigration agents. It also allows state and local police to detain people on suspicion of illegal entry to the U.S., and to freely share information with immigration authorities, as happened in the Franklin County incident.
Migrant Justice has asked lawmakers to postpone the new policy, to give them time to convince the attorney general and others to rethink elements of the plan.
Scherr says he’s open to continued conversations.
“But I don’t see on most of these points our office being able to move significantly,” Scherr says.
Senate lawmakers will meet this week to decide how, or whether, to intervene.