BURLINGTON - Vermont farm workers Rodrigo Alcaron-Rayon and José María Reyes-Reyes were expected to speak last week as part of an immigrants' rights forum at Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, less than 24 hours before both men were to fly home to their native Mexico. The subject of their talk, according to their translator, Irma Valeriano, was their concern about racial profiling and the growing climate of fear among Vermont's immigrant population.
By the night of the forum, however, both men had disappeared. Valeriano, a University of Vermont Spanish professor who'd booked the men's one-way plane tickets, knew nothing about their whereabouts, except that they'd been arrested the night before on the Addison County farm where they worked, and were taken to an undisclosed location.
"I took their money [for the tickets] with some misgivings, knowing those bills represent many long and hard hours of work," Valeriano said that evening. "And now, they and their money, apparently, are lost . . . and that gives me the creeps, because this shows just how vulnerable these people are."
Valeriano learned the following day that both men were being detained in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on immigration violations. What prompted their arrests, according to information from the Mexican Consulate in Boston, was that Alcaron-Rayon and Reyes-Reyes had tried to stop a domestic dispute between their boss and his wife. When the boss' son called 911, the police officer who responded asked the men for their IDs, discovered they were undocumented workers, and took them to jail. As of press time, both men were being held on $20,000 bail.
Local immigrants' rights activists say this incident highlights, with timely and painful irony, the need for Burlington and other Vermont municipalities to become "sanctuary" cities. The sanctuary-city concept began in the 1980s as a way of protecting refugees who were fleeing persecution in Latin America. The idea was later resurrected in reaction to the immigration laws that were imposed following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Mayor Bob Kiss raised the idea for Burlington shortly after he took office last March. In recent years, at least 60 cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Austin and Chicago, have adopted sanctuary-city ordinances.
The goal of creating a sanctuary city is to prevent police and other government officials from probing into a person's immigration status without legitimate cause, supporters say. Human rights and civil liberties groups contend that, since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security has been enlisting state and local police to help root out people who may be in the country illegally. The result, they contend, has been a rise in racial profiling and a pervasive climate of fear and suspicion about those who look as if they weren't born in the United States.
The problem can be especially acute in Vermont's agricultural communities, where, according to one recent estimate, between 50 and 75 percent of all dairy farms rely on undocumented laborers, most of whom are from Mexico. In places such as Franklin and Addison counties, some migrant laborers, even those who are in the country legally, say they rarely if ever leave their farms for fear of being stopped and interrogated by police.
Such concerns aren't restricted to agricultural workers. At last week's forum, Tristin Adie, who's training to become a nurse, recounted an incident that occurred several weeks ago while she was working at the Birchwood Nursing Home in Burlington's New North End. According to Adie, about a dozen Latino construction workers were renovating a wing of the facility when their appearance aroused the suspicion of someone in the area.
"Apparently, someone called ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and border patrol agents streamed in with guns . . . and demanded papers from everyone," Adie said. As it turned out, all the workers were in the country legally, though several didn't have identification on them. But Adie said the raid "touched off a number of incidents" and frightened some of the residents, many of whom are elderly and suffer from dementia.
Wilson Skinner of Immigrant Rights Vermont, a local nonprofit group that sponsored last week's forum, recounted a similar incident that happened in August. A Mexican farm worker tried to buy a bus ticket to Mexico at the Vermont Transit Lines station in Burlington. According to Skinner, a bus company employee suspected the man was in the country illegally and contacted ICE. The man was arrested.
Incidents like these are becoming increasingly common in Vermont, immigrant advocates say. One recounted stories of foreign-born nationals who are afraid to visit a doctor or to enter a post office for fear of being questioned about their legal status. Another spoke of a legal, foreign-born resident who called the police to report an act of vandalism in his neighborhood. Several days later, an agent with the Department of Homeland Security visited the man.
"This is an issue of equality," said Skinner. "Having even legal immigrants not feeling comfortable that they can call the police, for whatever reason . . . is fundamentally undermining our public safety here in Burlington and the area at large."
Mayor Kiss didn't attend last week's forum. He said later that he's still exploring a sanctuary-city proposal, though its urgency has been reduced somewhat by the recent change in control of Congress. "One Republican agenda was to recognize how important undocumented workers are in the economy, and the other was to turn everybody into felons," Kiss said. "I think the 'turning everybody into felons' will lose some of its momentum now."
Kiss pointed out that, for the most part, Burlington is generous in the services it offers immigrants, and doesn't inquire about someone's legal status except when required by state or federal law, such as on applications for food stamps and public housing.
He added that the Burlington Police Department's bias-free policing policy has helped to reduce some of the public's concerns about racial profiling, though he admitted there's still "room for improvement" in how immigrants and refugees are treated, particularly those who are witnesses and victims of crimes.
Burlington Deputy Police Chief Walt Decker said he's sympathetic to the calls for a sanctuary city, and that his officers have enough to do without needlessly probing into the immigration status of everyone who looks foreign-born.
"Every single day, we have people walk down the hill from across the world," Decker said. "We have no way of knowing what someone's immigration status is because they could be here on a student visa or work visa."
Decker added that he knows of no instances when the Burlington Police Department has been asked to cooperate with border patrol or ICE agents to round up illegal workers. But he pointed out that Burlington police are legally sworn to uphold all state and federal laws, which sometimes require them to verify a person's identity. If an individual provides a police officer with false identification, Decker added, the officer is legally required to run a background check, and the person's immigration status may be uncovered as a result.