Migrant farmworker arrests prompt internal police investigation - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Migrant farmworker arrests prompt internal police investigation

September 14, 2011

Danilo Lopez and Antonio Mesa-Sandovail are migrant farmworkers. They're here illegally, earning money on Vermont farms and sending their paychecks back to their families in Mexico.

Tuesday, they were arrested after the driver of the car they were riding in was pulled over for speeding. The farmworkers say they remained quiet during the traffic stop, but the Vermont State trooper pressed them for paperwork. Lopez called the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project, an advocacy group that helps undocumented workers.

"The fact that we showed up is what we do. We are an organization that follows injustice and we're going to be there if there's a problem. That's why we exist," said Brendan O'Neill of the Vermont Farmworkers Solidarity Project.

The volunteers organized quickly; holding a candlelight vigil, staging a protest and some even attempted to block border patrol from processing Lopez and Mesa-Sandovail. O'Neill was one of the three volunteers arrested. He stands behind the cause.

"This is the first instance where we had a farmworker leader who happened to be detained, who happened to have our phone number and the insight to contact us. And what you saw was not a setup, but a reality that Vermonters are starting to organize and starting to come together to stand up for the rights of undocumented workers," O'Neill said.

The arrests sparked controversy because some say they violate the state's bias-free policing policy implemented last year. The guidelines encourage law enforcement to take a don't ask, don't tell approach to questioning law-abiding citizens about their immigration status.

"We will take a look at this case to see if it is consistent with the model policy last fall that we hope all law enforcement will adopt," said Bill Sorrell, D-Vt. Attorney General.

"Every single traffic stop, every single contact is sticky. You just never know where it's going to go," Winooski Police Chief Steve McQueen said.

McQueen helped create the bias-free guidelines and explained what governs police during a traffic stop. "We're looking for indicators. If they believe the occupants may be in some sort of violation then it's perfectly reasonable to identify them. We need to know who we are dealing with."

At this point it's unclear what transpired during the stop. The Vermont State police did not make anyone available on camera, but State Police Director Tom L'Esperance issued the following statement: "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."

Advocates for Lopez and Mesa-Sandovail argue the trooper was out-of-line since it was the driver who was speeding.

"If it not for the color of their skin we don't think that the workers would have been asked to prove their documented status," O'Neill said.

State police are conducting their own investigation. The public information officer says they won't comment while their internal review is underway. But we have put in a request for access to the cruiser camera footage.

As for Lopez and Mesa-Sandovail, they're facing deportation proceedings but it's unclear when they'll be in court.

Jennifer Reading - WCAX News

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