New 'Bias-Free' Immigration Policy Presents Challenges

11/10/11 7:30AM By Jane Lindholm
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(Host) For the past five days the Vermont State Police have been operating under new guidelines for how to deal with questions of illegal immigration.

The revised "bias-free policing policy" is intended to make the rules more clear both for police officers, and for migrant farm workers and others whose status in this country may be questioned.

But as VPR's Jane Lindholm reports, there are still gray areas.

(Lindholm) On September 13th, Vermont State Police stopped a driver for speeding on Interstate 89. The two passengers in the car were Mexican immigrants working on a Vermont farm: Danilo Lopez and Antonio Mesa-Sandoval.

The farm workers weren't involved in the traffic infraction. But they couldn't provide immigration documentation when a trooper asked, so they were taken into custody.

A week later, Governor Shumlin addressed the question of who should bear the responsibility for checking residency status.

(Shumlin) "It is my belief that immigration policy should be enforced by the Federal government. And that it is not our local sheriffs' challenge when they're working so hard dealing with limited resources or frankly the State Police's challenge to really spend a lot of their resources dealing with immigration issues when they have much tougher jobs to do."

An internal review by the State Police concluded that the trooper acted appropriately in the traffic stop, following the rules and regulations set out for the state police.

But the case spurred Governor Shumlin to review the state's bias-free police policy and make some changes. Those changes were announced on Friday and have already been implemented by the State Police.

(L'Esperance) "I'm happy that the policy is here now."

(Lindholm) State Police Director Colonel Tom L'Esperance says this clarification makes it crystal clear that troopers shouldn't ask for the immigration status of someone who is not committing a crime. And, L'Esperance says, it frees troopers up to do more critical police work.

(L'Esperance) "We have a number of crimes that are being committed around the state that we really need to focus on: prescription drug abuse in particular and the collateral crimes that come with that, along with domestic violence and things like that that we really have to spend our time addressing those crimes."

(Lindholm) Advocates for Vermont's migrant workers are pleased with the policy as it's written, but say they'll have to wait and see how fairly it is implemented. Natalia Fajardo is Coordinator of the Vermont Migrant Farmworkers Solidarity Project.

(Fajardo) "We are hopeful that it's really gonna change the situation on the ground; it's going to make all communities safer in Vermont, particularly communities of color and the migrant farmworker community."

(Lindholm) There is a loophole in Vermont's stance on immigration policy. Colonel L'Esperance says that if, in the course of an investigation, a trooper knows about the immigration status of someone, or suspects that person is here illegally, the trooper could always go to the federal government on his or her own.

(L'Esperance) "I can't order a trooper not to... call border patrol while they're on duty. Off-duty, I can't tell an American citizen that they can't work with the-or pass information along to the federal government."

(Lindholm) Vermont's policy does run counter to the trends in federal immigration policy, but Colonel L'Esperance says this is the kind of discussion that's happening in states around the country as police try to stretch their budgets while keeping their communities safe.

(L'Esperance) "It's an issue that has literally traveled west to east. Most states have already addressed the issue and they look at it as, is it mission critical for state level law enforcement agencies to participate in immigration issues or not, or is it something that slows their mission down?"

(Lindholm) L'Esperance says it's more important for Vermont police to focus on other crimes, and this new policy should help them do that.

For VPR News, I'm Jane Lindholm.

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