Gov. Scott signs immigration bill despite legal concerns, federal funding threats

Editor’s note: This article by Emma Lamberton originally appeared March 28, 2017, at

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday signed an immigration bill that could cause the federal government to designate Vermont as a sanctuary jurisdiction.

Scott signed the legislation surrounded by Attorney General TJ Donovan, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, bipartisan sponsors from the Senate and members of the Governor’s Civil Rights and Criminal Justice Cabinet.

The new law prohibits state officials from sharing local residents’ personally identifiable information with the federal government for purposes of “a registry.” Among the 11 characteristics the state wants hidden from federal immigration enforcement officers are immigration status, national origin, religion, race and color.

The legislation could come at a steep cost.

On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the federal government is prepared to withhold billions of dollars from sanctuary jurisdictions. Maryland is currently debating legislation similar to Vermont’s, and Sessions warned the state not to sign its bill into law.

“That would be such a mistake. I would plead with the state of Maryland. It is not good policy,” he said at a news conference.

Local experts have raised concerns about S. 79 that have not been addressed.

During Senate hearings on the bill, Gary Shattuck, who served 15 years as an assistant United States attorney, said S.79 “constitutes an early effort attempting to attain an extra-legal status of a so-called sanctuary state.”

“It affords the real possibility of Vermont becoming a safe-haven, standing apart from the nation, [and giving] those engaged in illegal conduct protections not otherwise available to them,” Shattuck said.

He also criticized the bill’s vague language and lack of litigation protection for law enforcement.

During deliberation in the Vermont House earlier this month, Luke Martland, director and chief counsel for the Office of Legislative Counsel, informed the House Committee on Judiciary in a memo that S. 79 could have significant unintended consequences because of the intentionally vague language of the bill.

In particular, Martland said withholding personally identifying information from any federal agency or official would extend well beyond immigration. Examples cited include citizenship verification of Medicaid applicants, vital records kept by the Social Security Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, benefit programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and law enforcement databases such as the FBI National Crime Information Center system.

“[The bill] could be read as potentially prohibiting the disclosure … of any of the 11 personally identifying characteristics to any federal agency,” he wrote in the memo. He added that the state shares information in “many contexts and for many reasons that have little or nothing to do with immigration or the potential problems this bill is intended to address.”

Still, legislators did not change the bill to address those concerns.

“I was assured by the governor and attorney general’s office that [Martland’s] concerns were unfounded,” state Sen. Dustin Degree, R-Franklin, told Watchdog. “His was just one interpretation of what the language means.”

Rebecca Kelly, the governor’s press secretary, told Watchdog that Martland’s concerns had been thoroughly reviewed and that the bill “will not disrupt existing state data collection or sharing programs.”

The feds may have a different view of things. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is publishing lists of “non-Federal jurisdictions that release aliens from their custody, notwithstanding that such aliens are subject to a detainer or similar request for custody issued by ICE to that jurisdiction.”

Last week, DHS identified Montpelier as a sanctuary jurisdiction due to its refusal to hold persons requested under detainers by ICE. The policy technically could apply anywhere in the state after Vermont passed Fair and Impartial Policing guidelines in 2016.

ICE will update the list weekly, and experts told Watchdog that hiding information about illegal immigrants may cause Vermont to lose federal dollars.

Emma Lamberton was Vermont Watchdog’s health care and Rutland area reporter.

Image courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection