As Vermont’s governor and Legislature fast-track legislation designed to limit the scale of cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities, state officials are seeking federal funding designated to “strengthen partnerships [that U.S. Border Patrol has] with local law enforcement agencies while increasing border awareness and intelligence.”
The federal funding offer and the legislation come as the state’s top officials work to insulate Vermont residents from the effects of President Donald Trump’s executive orders and other efforts on immigration. Vermont officials, including Gov. Phil Scott, have said Vermont law enforcement officers should not play a role in the federal government’s expanded efforts to deport people living in the United States illegally.
Gov. Phil Scott and Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson say there’s no inconsistency between the legislation and enhancing the state’s cooperation with U.S. Border Patrol. Anderson says the federal funding program that the state is working with, Operation Stonegarden, “increases the eyes and ears at the border” by funding equipment and additional patrols for law enforcement agencies in border states.
Operation Stonegarden is a years-old funding program through the federal Department of Homeland Security. Vermont has taken advantage of the funding before. Anderson says that’s smart policy.
“Vermont has an interest, independent of the federal government, to ensure the safety of its borders,” Anderson says. “So things like drug smuggling, human trafficking, terrorism – law enforcement in Vermont has an equal interest in making sure that doesn’t occur across the border as the federal government does.”
Jay Diaz, staff attorney for the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, agrees that law enforcement in Vermont have an interest in enforcing Vermont’s criminal laws. But Diaz says that there has already been improper coordination between Vermont law enforcement and federal immigration officials in Vermont, and he says the legislation designed to limit police’s collaboration with federal immigration authorities, Senate Bill 79, does nothing to prevent that kind of coordination from happening in the future.
In one case, the Department of Motor Vehicles settled a case and agreed to new training protocols because of the way a DMV official dealt with a man seeking a driver’s privilege card, which the state offers to residents even if they don’t have documentation of legal U.S. residency. The ACLU represented the man in his case against the state.
“He went to get his driver’s privilege card, the DMV enforcement agent was made aware of his application, started talking to ICE and Border Patrol about him, and then asked our client to come back to talk further about his application, and had ICE show up at the meeting and arrest him,” Diaz says. “The [Vermont] officer effectively facilitated that arrest and really kind of entrapped our client. We filed a Human Rights Commission [complaint] and won. We got a settlement from the DMV and they agreed to change policies.”
Diaz says he wants to see similar policies enacted for other law enforcement agencies, and along those lines the ACLU is pressing lawmakers to force a statewide “fair and impartial policing” policy, as VTDigger reported this week.
Senate Bill 79 would prevent Vermont law enforcement officials from entering into a specific type of agreement outlined in federal law. Those agreements, which Diaz says have never been in place in Vermont, give local cops the power to enforce federal immigration law themselves. Diaz points out that the legislation makes no effort to prevent state or local law enforcement from helping federal authorities with their immigration enforcement.
“It’s been a common misconception around S.79 that it will prevent local law enforcement from participating in federal immigration enforcement,” Diaz says. “It does nothing of the sort.”
Anderson, the commissioner of public safety, says the kind of cooperation called for by Operation Stonegarden is completely consistent with the intent of Senate Bill 79.
“S.79, the one part of it is [prohibiting] these very specific agreements that would basically deputize state and local law enforcement to be border patrol agents,” Anderson says. “That’s not what [Operation] Stonegarden does. There’s no deputization, there’s not transfer of supervision, there’s nothing like that in Stonegarden.”
Anderson says that the collaboration under Operation Stonegarden “would be local law enforcement assisting in patrolling the border.”
Diaz says the ACLU supports the policy to prevent local police from being deputized as border patrol. But he says it doesn’t go far enough to protect people living in Vermont form having their immigration status be a problem in interactions with local and state police.
“This is something that has been brought to the attention of the legal system here in Vermont, and it’s continuing to come up,” Diaz says. “We want a policy of non-involvement in immigration matters. This is about federal immigration law.”
Diaz says immigration law simply isn’t something Vermont police should deal with, and that doing so “doesn’t keep our residents and citizens safe in the way that our law enforcement should be focused on.”
At least one lawmaker in Montpelier sees an opportunity to add protections to Vermont law that aren’t included in the current iteration of Senate Bill 79.
Burlington Rep. Barbara Rachelson sits on the House Committee on Judiciary, which oversees law enforcement issues. She introduced a bill that’s less focused on how cops interact with the feds and more concerned with how state and local data is shared with federal agencies.
She says the Legislature’s work on a privacy bill last year exposed her to “the variety of databases that we have as a state with information on people.”
Her bill proposes to prohibit data sharing with federal law enforcement officials without a warrant, but she also says she hopes it will start a conversation in the Legislature about what should be done to protect the troves of personal data about Vermonters that are stored by the state.
“I think it’s a question we all need to be asking, because there’s so much information that’s collected related to food stamps, related to benefits that people are applying for with the state. I mean, our state computer system has a lot of information in it and we don’t want to ... discourage people from getting public assistance or assistance that they need because they’re fearful, but also protecting their privacy.”
Rachelson said she wants to get a better sense of how data about Vermont residents flows between state and federal agencies so that lawmakers can ensure that people’s personal data isn’t used against them.
“How can we make sure we’re not just turning things over?” Rachelson asks. At this point, she says she doesn’t have an answer to that question, and in general there are more questions than answers.
“It just needs to be questioned. Who has access to what, and what information is in there, and why is it being shared? So I hope this will get the conversation started, and obviously it would have to get more in-depth testimony” before the bill becomes final, Rachelson said.
Rachelson said that discussion could include reconsidering federal funding opportunities like Operation Stonegarden, and looking into what data sharing stipulations may be attached to federal funding.
“Do we need to insert ourselves in terms of a law to tell people that, ‘Look, we can’t have you breaking Vermont law. We don’t want to compromise the data. Either take that [stipulation] out of the grant agreement or don’t apply for the grant,” Rachelson says.
She acknowledges that asking state or local governments to forego a stream of federal funding is no small request. She doesn’t think such a provision will necessarily end up in the legislation she has proposed, but she does think those issues are important for the Legislature to consider as it works to protect Vermont residents from being unfairly targeted by the executive orders and policies of President Donald Trump.