In Vermont., 'protect and serve' includes the undocumented
- In Vt., 'protect and serve' includes illegal immigrants
By Daniel Barlow & Brent Curtis Staff Writers -
July 11, 2010
Montpelier - Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley believes that when someone
is a member of his community, it doesn't matter how the person got there.
As the state of Arizona prepares to implement the strictest immigration law
in the country, this college town set amid dairy country - where many
farmers now rely on immigrant labor - has taken a different approach to
illegal immigration. Middlebury police don't ask about immigration status,
don't seek out workers who are in the country illegally, and have a tough
policy against anything resembling racial profiling.
"We are a public peace agency," Hanley said late last week. "My agency
focuses on enforcing criminal statutes and state laws."
Hanley, who debuted his department's anti-racial profiling policy - by pure
coincidence - on Sept. 13, 2001, said that immigration is a federal issue.
Vermont police enforce Vermont laws. Unless a person is involved in criminal
activity, he instructs his officers not to seek out those who may not have
permission to live in the United States.
"My job is to keep the community safe, and that means everyone in the
community," Hanley said. "Seeking out people who are not here legally is a
distraction from our mission. I don't have the staff or the resources. It's
just not good police work."
Safety, justice first
The town's policy on illegal immigrants - passed by the Select Board in
October 2007 - states that "Department employees will act first and foremost
in the best interests of our community and our mission when dealing with
undocumented foreign nationals who come to the department for help or to
make reports, giving full priority to public safety and justice concerns in
preference over rigid enforcement of immigration regulations."
That's nearly identical language to the Burlington Police Department's
written policy on dealing with residents who may be immigrants. That plan
probably was made possible by the bold actions of Middlebury's Hanley,
according to civil rights experts in Vermont.
"What Tom has done in Middlebury is taken a brave approach to this
complicated and layered problem," said Robert Appel, the executive director
of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. "And I think other departments are
starting to take notice."
Appel said the state has a patchwork approach to illegal immigration. How
police handle the issue depends on what town or city you are in and what
type of law enforcement is involved.
But more and more police chiefs are beginning to worry that illegal
immigrants in their community could become victims of violent crime because
the perpetrators know that victims risk losing the life they have built in
the United States if they contact police, he said.
Illegal immigrant farm workers were robbed and beaten in Grand Isle two
years ago, Appel said, an incident that didn't attract much media attention
at the time but shocked police officials and civil rights activists. He said
the suspects knew the victims weren't in the country legally and were
reluctant to contact police.
"Police want people to come forward and report crimes," he said. "If someone
is afraid to call the cops because they could be deported, the whole
community gets hurt. That scenario approaches lawlessness."
'No one skips a beat'
How law enforcement tackles illegal immigration is a touchy and apparently
sometimes secretive topic. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security operates
a hotline based in Williston called the Law Enforcement Support Center that
directs local police on how to handle immigration issues.
No one answered the phone at the Williston hotline when The Times Argus and
the Rutland Herald called last week. A website directed a reporter's
questions to a Boston office; a message there indicated that calls from that
office would not be returned and directed questions to a New Jersey office.
A series of questions e-mailed to that office were not answered by Friday
State police in Vermont said they don't actively look for illegal
immigrants. But if they suspect someone of being in the country without
permission, they will give that person's name to federal immigration
officials and detain the person until federal agents arrive.
"Federal law does not require officers to ask about the legal status of
crime victims or witnesses, and we don't routinely ask for proof of
identity," said Maj. Walter Goodell, commander of the Vermont State Police
field force division.
"To be crystal clear, our focus is on public safety services. We don't see
ourselves filling a role as primary agents in immigration service
enforcement," he added.
That perspective was echoed by state police Lt. Gary Genova, who commands
the New Haven barracks in Addison County --- a part of the state believed to
have a high number of illegal immigrants working on dairy farms.
Genova said he knows that illegal immigrant workers - many of them from
Mexico - are at large in his jurisdiction, but he said neither the police
nor residents have had many complaints.
"I can't speak to the issues in Arizona ... but at least in Addison County,
no one skips a beat," he said. That said, Genova added that his troopers
would look into the immigration or citizenship status of anyone of any
ethnicity who was charged with a crime.
In addition, he said he would expect his troopers to investigate the
background of a person whose identity was in question. For example, during a
motor vehicle stop - normally a civil offense in Vermont - a trooper who
couldn't verify a person's driver's license or other identification could
detain the person while it was being researched.
To determine a person's identity and legal status, police turn to the Law
Enforcement Support Center in Williston, which is plugged into a nationwide
database of criminal histories.
If a person is in the country illegally, state police hold that person until
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrive to take custody.
State police detained 28 illegal immigrants in 2008, 19 in 2009 and 11 so
far this year.
Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary
Committee. Earlier this year he and other senators worked on a bill dealing
with human trafficking after discovering that Vermont was one of a few
states without laws specifically dealing with that form of slavery.
"I don't think we've talked about this issue in Vermont as much as we
should," Sears said about illegal immigration.
He said most immigrants living in Vermont are not committing crimes, but he
recognizes that a lack of clarity on the issue hurts law enforcement
efforts. Vermont's illegal immigration population is quite small, he added,
and often is an essential workforce.
"We have a lot of immigrants who work on our farms," Sears said. "Some of
them are probably here illegally."
The Arizona law - which the U.S. Department of Justice is trying to block
with a lawsuit - makes it a state crime, as opposed to a federal crime, to
be in the state illegally, essentially charging people with criminal
The text of that law reads like the exact opposite of the anti-bias policies
of Middlebury and Burlington. The Arizona law states that "there is a
compelling interest in the cooperative enforcement of federal immigration
laws throughout all of Arizona."
"The legislature declares that the intent of this act is to make attrition
through enforcement the public policy of all state and local government
agencies in Arizona," the introduction to the bill creating the law reads.
"The provisions of this act are intended to work together to discourage and
deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by
persons unlawfully present in the United States."
Arizona's law states that the enforcement will come without racial
profiling. Appel said that is impossible.
"I don't know how you ascertain that someone might be an undocumented
immigrant without racial profiling," Appel said. "The law states that you
can only ask about their immigration status if you suspect they are not a
citizen. It just doesn't make sense."
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