Does Vermont's fair and impartial policing policy protect immigrants?

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HARTFORD, Vt. (WCAX) Protestors blocked a busy street in White River Junction for about two hours on Wednesday, angry that federal agents rounded up 17 undocumented immigrants in the Upper Valley.

Many in the town also want to see changes to rules governing how local police work with federal immigration officials. But there also are many on the other side who say changes are not necessary.

Our Dom Amato took a closer look at the issue and what the state's fair and impartial police policy is now.

"There's been a lot of strong opinions on both sides," said Alan Johnson, a member of the Hartford select board.

Johnson says the Upper Valley community has been debating changes to police policy for a couple of months now. He says the farmworkers' rights advocacy group Migrant Justice suggested changes to the town's Fair and Impartial Police Policy. Hartford currently uses a policy developed for state police and used by most local departments.

"I think what other communities are grappling with right now is can you go above the statewide policy? And the answer is you can," said T.J. Donovan, D-Vt. Attorney General.

Donovan says the statewide policy is as protective of immigrants as any in the country.

"When it comes to the issues of immigration, it's very protective," he said. "You can't ask about immigration or citizenship. You can't participate in an ICE raid with federal authorities."

But Donovan says the state can't prohibit law enforcement officers from sharing information with the federal government. That's what groups like Migrant Justice and the ACLU want to change. They say the statewide policy still has loopholes that are "insufficiently protective" for undocumented immigrants.

"There's always room that we can improve and cooler heads will prevail and allow us, I believe, to do that and move forward in a manner that protects everyone but also is within the law and that is my hope," Hartford Police Chief Phillip Kasten said.

Kasten emphasizes that his department did not participate in the ICE raid a few weeks ago. But he expects the select board to adopt a new ordinance governing how his department works with the feds.

"My personal opinion is that is we haven't found an action that we can take that won't do more harm to the cause than good," Johnson said.

Johnson says they continue to work on it. He says many are not pleased with how long the process is taking and he says the heated public debates and this week's protest have done damage to the community. He hopes to begin the healing process and to rebuild support for one another.

"I've seen Hartford get through tough things before and we come out stronger every time," Johnson said.

There's no word on when the next meeting will be to vote on the proposed ordinance.