Not 'Sanctuary City,' But New Policy Means Burlington Cops Won't Ask About Immigration

Jun 13, 2017

Burlington’s city council approved a new Fair and Impartial Policing Policy Monday, completing a process that began just after Donald Trump was elected president.

The policy declares that staff of the Burlington Police Department, officers and civilians, will “not routinely ask any person about their immigration status.” The policy was designed to assure people in Burlington, especially those who may not be in the United States legally, that the city’s police force is more interested in keeping the community safe than enforcing federal immigration laws.

Speaking to the city council before a vote on the policy Monday, Weinberger said that in November “it was clear that there was great concern within the community about the implications of the new Trump presidency for the people of Burlington.”

Weinberger initially called for Burlington to officially become a “sanctuary city,” but that politically popular term became risky after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened federal funding to “sanctuary” jurisdictions. (After a federal court found that the administration had overstepped, Sessions clarified his guidance.)

The lone “no” vote on the city council came from Dave Hartnett, a Democrat representing the city’s North District. Hartnett said he had concerns about whether the policy would put the city in danger of losing federal funds, and he worried that a mandatory statewide policy coming within the next year would complicate the city’s efforts.

“I thought it was more important that we took our time. Instead of getting it done quickly I’d rather get it done right,” he said.

City Attorney Eileen Blackwood said the policy explicitly addressed concerns about a potential risk to Burlington’s federal funding after Sessions issued his guidance on the topic.

"Not only are we not coming close to willfully violating [federal law], we are clearly saying that the City of Burlington will abide by it." - Eileen Blackwood, Burlington city attorney

“In that memo, Attorney General Sessions said that a sanctuary jurisdiction is one that willfully chooses to violate 8 U.S. C. Section 1373, so we have written into our policy that,” Blackwood paused to find her place on the page in front of her, “‘nothing in this policy is intended to violate 8 U.S.C. Section 1373. And we have specifically said that pursuant to 8 U.S.C. 1373 ‘the City of Burlington may not prohibit or in any way restrict any government entity or official from sending to or receiving from federal immigration authorities information about the citizenship or immigration status of any individual.’”

Blackwood said the city is firmly on safe ground with the policy.

“Not only are we not coming close to willfully violating it, we are clearly saying that the City of Burlington will abide by it,” she said.

In response to Hartnett's concern about potential conflicts with the coming state policy, Blackwood said that there is nothing preventing Burlington's city council from making changes to the city's policy later.

The policy has an exemption that states that Burlington police officers may ask about immigration status if they’re working with federal authorities as part of Operation Stonegarden, which is a program through which local departments work with the Department of Homeland Security in border regions. Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said the Burlington Police Department does not participate in the program and has no plans to.

Del Pozo acknowledged that because of the federal law cited in Sessions’ memo, if officers come to know that a person is in the country illegally without asking, there is nothing the police department can do to stop the officer from going to the feds with that information.

“If an officer of his or her own volition decides to communicate on the topic of someone’s immigration status with federal authorities, then 1373 means that we cannot prevent that officer from doing so,” del Pozo said.

New North End Republican Councilor Kurt Wright asked del Pozo if he thought the policy would “in any way tie the hands of the Burlington Police from doing their job adequately.”

Del Pozo said that unless it’s the job of local police to enforce federal immigration law, the policy doesn’t stand in their way.

“In my opinion, our job centers around public safety and crime control – and also collaborating with the federal government on public safety and crime control – moreso than simple immigration process, so I’d have to say the answer to that question is no.”