Vermont has a growing number of so-called sanctuary cities, and yet police differ on whether the state’s insistence on shielding illegal immigrants from federal law enforcement is preventing police from keeping Vermonters safe.
Vermont has a fair and impartial policing policy. Yet police continue to be pressured by social justice activists, especially when it comes to working with federal agents to round up bad guys illegally living in the U.S.
True North contacted both a current and retired police chief to get their views on how political pressure related to immigration affects the ability of officers to do their jobs.
Montpelier Police Chief Anthony Facos was among the many witnesses who testified to lawmakers on S.79 (Act 5), legislation Gov. Phil Scott signed into law in 2017. That legislation prohibited state and local police from participating in some federal immigration enforcement efforts.
According to Facos, Vermont law strikes a balance between law enforcement needs and social justice.
“It made clear several key pieces, that our policies in Vermont would comport with federal law. In other words, we would not prohibit police agencies from communicating with our federal partners, and it also made clear that we are not civil immigration enforcement agents,” he said.
The 2017 law also protects illegal immigrants in situations where an illegal immigrant might need to approach local police for help, but would be afraid to, out of fear of being deported.
“If you [an illegal immigrant] are a victim of a crime, if you are a witness, if you need our services, it doesn’t matter — we want people to be able to come to us and communicate with us without fear,” Facos explained.
He added that if immigration status is relevant to an investigation, however, such as with drugs or human trafficking, state and local police are permitted to contact federal agents.
“We have a very close relationship with our federal partners the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, and even Customs — we use their assets sometimes,” he said. “And I think we are one of the only municipalities in Vermont that has an FBI task force officer.”
Facos mentioned another bill lawmakers passed last year that let Vermont municipalities choose not to communicate with the feds.
“It allowed for municipalities to, at their own risk if you will, to go against [S. 79] and add additional protections and prohibitions that would, for example, prevent their officers from communicating with the feds,” he said. “Montpelier has not done that.”
He added that immigration-related inquiries between the feds and Montpelier police that don’t pertain to a criminal investigation almost never happen.
“The reality is these conversations aren’t happening and have not happened in years,” Facos said. “So I’m just trying to provide real data to kind of debunk some of the misconceptions that are getting a lot of traction both at Statehouse and in some of our communities.”
Michael Hall, former Manchester chief of police, retired from his position in July. But before he retired, he opposed the push to prevent local police from working on cases involving immigration status. He also takes issue with aspects of Vermont’s fair and impartial policing policy.
“I was pretty strongly opposed to what this state had instituted, and essentially what they did was the legislature basically compelled the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council to adopt a fair and impartial policing policy, which, if you read it, is basically an immigration policy,” he said.
Hall says fair and impartial policing hinders the ability of police officers to use demographics when investigating a person who might be in the country illegally.
“Basically, that’s what law enforcement consists of — taking known factors and then compiling that with other elements to arise to a level of suspicion, and then you check it out further,” he said.
Hall said he voiced his views to other police chiefs from around the state: “I said to them, ‘This is in violation of federal law. I mean, you are asking us to not cooperate with federal authority.'”
He said immigrant activist groups tend to focus on workers’ rights, such as working long hours in tough conditions for low pay, typically in agriculture. But, many immigration problems don’t involve labor issues.
“They would like to make you think it [this policy] is specifically about our migrant farmworkers. It isn’t. It applies to law enforcement’s ability to interact and investigate people of any nationality that we think may be here illegally,” Hall said.
He noted that when this policy was first adopted, the U.S. Department of Justice determined that Vermont was doing the same thing that a sanctuary city does, and it threatened to withhold $2 million in federal funding related to the Vermont Drug Task Force.
As recently as February, the DOJ said it was holding up the DOJ Byrne JAG grant and the DOJ COPS Anti-Heroin Task Force grant, pending review of Vermont’s anti-cooperation policies. But in March, Vermont officials said the Vermont Department of Public safety would, in fact, get $2.3 million in law enforcement grants from the federal government.
Hall said if someone from Vermont law enforcement contacts federal immigration authorities and files a complaint against a Vermont agency, disciplinary action may be taken against that agency. He said it already happened to Vermont’s Department of Motor Vehicles and at least one sheriff’s department.
He added that groups like Migrant Justice and the Vermont Human Rights Commission are working too closely together.
“If you look at the players that are involved in both of them, there’s a lot of … conflict-of-interest type stuff,” he said.