Vermont migrant farmworkers want their adopted state to take a stand against a controversial — and confusing — federal immigration enforcement program that three governors have already rejected.
For several weeks, a coalition led by the Vermont Workers’ Center and VT Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project has gathered petitions asking the Shumlin administration to say no to Secure Communities, a program that shares fingerprints collected by local police agencies with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, aka ICE. The program’s goal is to catch and deport criminal aliens, but it has come under fire for sweeping up large numbers of undocumented immigrants who have no criminal record.
When the program launched in 2008, officials from the Department of Homeland Security initially described it as voluntary, and even provided states and cities with instructions for opting out. Forty-three states have since implemented Secure Communities in at least some of their towns and counties.
Vermont hasn’t signed on. Neither have Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Maine, Alaska and Washington, D.C.
But the Obama administration has since declared that Secure Communities is mandatory and that all states must be on board by 2013. Litigation has resulted. A federal judge in New York recently ordered the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to clarify whether states can decline.
Governors in three states where the Secure Communities program was adopted — Massachusetts, New York and Illinois — have made national headlines by declaring their states will no longer participate.
Will Shumlin become the fourth to opt out publicly?
Beth Robinson, the governor’s legal counsel, says the state hasn’t been approached by ICE, which has an office in Williston. “At this point, it’s a nonissue,” she says. And if ICE “asked us to get involved,” she says, she can’t predict Shumlin’s reaction. The governor was out of state on Monday.
That hasn’t stopped Danilo Lopez from urging his fellow farm laborers to organize against the policy. Vermont’s dairy farms are heavily dependent on migrant labor; several thousand Latino workers are employed in dairies, legally and illegally.
Speaking through a translator, Lopez, a 22-year-old Mexican employed on a horse farm in Charlotte, says the Secure Communities program is “racist” and would endanger Vermont communities by deterring immigrants from reporting crimes to the police for fear that doing so would lead to deportation. Lopez says most farmworkers already “live in complete panic of speaking up,” but he’s nonetheless collected a few dozen signatures, including some from undocumented immigrants.
At first glance, Secure Communities looks less controversial than previous ICE enforcement campaigns. Who can argue with getting dangerous criminals off the street? Plus, the program as designed uses relatively benign means to identify them. Unlike a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1996 that deputized local police to enforce federal immigration laws, Secure Communities doesn’t put more heat on the street. As of July 12, the program has removed 82,465 convicted criminal immigrants from the states that have implemented the system, according to ICE.
But as implemented, the program is seriously flawed, says Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, a co-organizer of the farmworkers’ petition drive.
“They say they’re going after the big fish, but who they scoop up and put into detention are the little fishes,” says Appel.
Appel references several cases that have been reported in the national media. In Boston, an 18-year-old Brazilian woman who has lived in the U.S. since childhood faces deportation after Boston police arrested her for traffic violations and driving without a license. In suburban Maryland, a 28-year-old undocumented woman from El Salvador was arrested and threatened with deportation — and separation from her 2-year-old daughter, a U.S. citizen — after calling police for protection from her abusive partner.
Even without Secure Communities, Vermont has seen traffic stops result in immigration busts. According to the Associated Press, state police stopped a car in Orwell last October for driving 72 mph in a 50-miles-per-hour zone and turned the driver and passenger over the U.S. Border Patrol after discovering they were in the country illegally. In June, four Jamaicans traveling without papers met the same fate after being stopped on I-89 near Winooski. They were driving 25 miles-per-hour in the passing lane.
Natalia Fajardo, a legal immigrant from Colombia who is co-coordinating the farmworker petition drive, says she experienced ethnic profiling by Vermont police. On July 4, 2010, Fajardo and a Guatemalan friend were returning from the Stowe farmers market when, she says, an officer stopped her for cutting off his police cruiser. According to Fajardo, the officer asked whether she was a citizen — she’s a legal resident — and asked to see her green card.
“All I could muster was ‘I’m sorry, sir, but I believe it’s not your jurisdiction to ask about my immigration status,’” says Fajardo, 27. “I was flushed, overwhelmed and disempowered, but I knew something was wrong. While I felt this briefly, I know it’s nothing compared to how many of my Latin American friends feel.”
All of this comes as Vermont police agencies are considering “bias-free policing” guidelines written and advocated by Attorney General William Sorrell that suggest police take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to immigration status for crime vicitims and witnesses. Police chiefs in some communities, notably Burlington, Middlebury, Winooski and South Burlington, have enthusiastically embraced that approach, even before the official endorsement from Vermont’s top law enforcer.
Despite the two traffic stops mentioned earlier, Vermont State Police Col. Tom L’Esperance says his troopers follow a bias-free policy that is “consistent” with Sorrell’s.
“The Vermont State Police take seriously the necessity of ensuring fair and humane treatment of all people living and working in Vermont regardless of their race, ethnicity, immigration status or other personal criteria,” L’Esperance says.
But it remains unclear how local police see it. Since Sorrell announced his view last November, his office hasn’t tracked how many police agencies have adopted the bias-free immigration policy in part or in whole, says Cindy Maguire, chief of the office’s criminal division.
Federal policy on this issue trumps local guidelines, of course — but whether the Obama administration will follow through on its pledge to force Secure Communities on every police agency in America remains to be seen.
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