Scott, Vt. law enforcement say state is complying with US immigration law

Published: Nov. 16, 2017 at 3:05 PM EST
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It's a policing policy that could cost Vermont more than half a million in federal dollars. But Gov. Phil Scott says he doesn't believe the U.S. Justice Department has done its homework on state's complying with immigration enforcement.

The U.S. Justice Department has put 29 jurisdictions in the country on notice, requiring them to prove their policing policies comply with federal immigration law. Two jurisdictions here received letters -- the city of Burlington and the state of Vermont.

To receive federal grants, you must comply with federal law. Wednesday's letters suggest Burlington and Vermont might be skirting the law instead. Both were called out for their Fair and Impartial Policing Policies, but for different reasons.

Vermont is singled out for provisions allowing the state to withhold the immigration status of victims and witnesses from the feds, and for forbidding state officers to use federal databases to communicate about immigration status.

Burlington's policy could also be in violation. The DOJ cites three possible infractions: allowing officers to not alert the feds to someone's immigration status, forbidding officers to ask about immigration status, and restricting when a federal immigration official can get involved in a city case.

The letters say the Justice Department has not determined if the city and state are breaking the law, but they need to respond to those letters by December 8th. What's clear is the state and city's policing policies are designed to restrict the flow of information regarding immigration status and the feds say that's illegal.

With hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding on the line, you might think state and city officials are worried, but that was not the case Thursday. "I don't know it's a complete surprise. I thought it would come long before this," Gov. Phil Scott said.

The governor says he's also not concerned, because he believes the state is fully compliant and that it's federal authorities that are confused. "We believe we're on solid ground with the passage of Act 79 and other measures that we took over the last year. We believe that the Attorney General -- U.S. Attorney General -- has not done his homework and that we are actually in compliance," Scott said.

His spokeswoman says the letter from the DOJ cites language from an older state policy. She says a law signed by Scott earlier this year updated the policy to make it clear state police would cooperate with federal agents. But that law -- Act 79 -- still prevents state police from sharing immigration status with federal authorities.

Most Vermonters we spoke with Thursday believe the federal government is overstepping. "I just think we should just let people live their lives. I mean, what the heck? No one's bothering me, and I came from another country," said Mary McGrath from Northfield.

"I think that the federal government has really over-stepped their boundaries already as far as our personal rights and privacy," said David Craig of Burlington.

But some believe the immigration status of alleged criminals should be shared. "If they're just pulling them over for like say a light on the car, then no, I don't think so. But again, if they find out they've done a criminal act, then yeah, it should be shared by everybody," said Lura Bullard of Barre.

Governor Scott says he's not worried about paying back federal grants or losing future grants because he remains confident that the state is in compliance with the law. But neither the governor or other state officials have put forward a well-defined reason why they are so sure. The DOJ wants the state to share information like immigration status, but the state is not doing that.

Law enforcement officials are also pushing back at the Justice Department letter. Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo says he's not surprised by the DOJ letters and his officers are not changing how they operate.

"We think we have a good policy that meets the muster of the law and it looks out for the interests of Burlingtonians," Chief del Pozo said.

Federal officials accuse the Burlington Police of not sharing immigration status information. The city says that's not their job, and Attorney General TJ Donovan agrees.

"We do believe that were in compliance with federal law. We also believe that you can't come and do your local law enforcement and make them into de-facto immigration officers. I understand what the federal law is, but what we're trying to do is protect Vermonters," he said.

In jeopardy for the city is a $40,000 federal grant. Chief del Pozo says they use it to help crime victims, the community justice center, and reintegrate prisoners into the community among other things. Although not vital to the department, he says cutting funding to those programs would hinder police work. "Ironically, you know we'd be softer on crime if we lost them," he said.

Chief del Pozo says his policies are in the best interest of public safety, but admits he doesn't know how the politics will play out. "I just don't know what's going to happen in Washington. I don't think the mayor knows, or anyone knows," he said.

But del Pozo knows what his officers will do. "Our argument is going to be that we obey the law," he said.

"The federal government can have whatever immigration policy they want -- that's their jurisdiction. This is really about local control and this is about local law enforcement," Donovan said.

Chief del Pozo says a lot of thought went into Burlington's Fair and Impartial Policing Policy. He feels it reflects the city's values and is 100-percent legal.