A federal information-sharing policy newly implemented in Vermont has put the state’s look-the-other-way, bias-free policing policy in jeopardy.
The policy, Secure Communities, uses existing procedure and infrastructure to assist the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division in catching illegal immigrants.
Before Tuesday, when state or local police in Vermont made an arrest and submitted the suspect’s fingerprints into the FBI database, the fingerprint information only went to the FBI database. The fingerprints were checked against known criminals or outstanding warrants, allowing for increased law enforcement capability across state lines.
Secure Communities is simple: It takes down a previously existing division between the FBI fingerprint database and ICE, thereby allowing immigration officials to track and investigate arrested individuals in Vermont.
In a statement, ICE spokesman Ross Feinstein noted that since the beginning of the program’s nationwide rollout in 2008, “Secure Communities has helped ICE remove more than 135,000 convicted criminal aliens including more than 49,000 convicted of major violent offenses like murder, rape and the sexual abuse of children. Approximately 95% of the 179,000 removals generated through Secure Communities clearly fell within one of ICE’s enforcement priorities.”
But critics of the program say the cost is too high. Migrant Justice, a Vermont-based activist group focused on the migrant community, held a protest outside Obama’s Vermont campaign headquarters Tuesday.
Danilo Lopez, a volunteer for the group, is in the process of fighting deportation after a state trooper pulled over a car he was riding in.
“I, in September of last year, was a passenger … the State Police stopped the car for speeding and the trooper saw my skin color and said ‘Hey, are you illegal? I need your papers,’ and pressured and pressured, and the trooper caller border patrol to arrest me,” Lopez said in a mix of English and Spanish.
Stories like this one shed a different light on the issue. Lopez was not committing a crime when the state police stopped the car he was in, and he says discriminatory policing led to the charges against him.
About 50 people marched through Burlington passing out orange pamphlets calling Obama “Deporter-in-Chief” and that criticize the president for lack of follow-through on campaign promises of immigration reform.
The pamphlet says Obama deported 1.4 million immigrants, set aggressive annual deportation quotas of 400,000, and is now imposing “S-COMM” nationwide without consultation.
Other communities have resisted Secure Communities, including Santa Clara County, Calif., where the county’s board of supervisors voted to opt out of a connected tactic by which ICE can request that local and state law enforcement hold someone currently in custody for an additional 48 hours to give federal enforcers time to come investigate the individual. Tuesday’s protesters called on Vermont to do the same.
But Feinstein says there is no opting out of the program.
“The information-sharing partnership between DHS and the FBI that serves as the cornerstone of Secure Communities is mandated by federal law,” Feinstein said in an email statement. “As a result, Secure Communities is mandatory in that, once the information-sharing capability is activated for a jurisdiction, the fingerprints that state and local law enforcement voluntarily submit to the FBI for criminal justice purposes to be checked against the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) biometric identification system for criminal history records are automatically sent to DHS’s biometric system to check against its immigration and law enforcement records.”
Thus, the only way for Vermont to opt out of the program is to cease voluntary submission of fingerprints into the FBI database.
When asked what he thought about the possibility of opting out of the program, Gov. Peter Shumlin said:
“It’s no secret that our national immigration policies don’t necessarily synch with the way that we see things here in Vermont, and I’ve been pretty clear and outspoken about that,” Shumlin said. “We cannot get milk to market, our farmers cannot thrive in a tough economy without some guest labor, we know that. We also know that we want to treat anyone who is working in the state Vermont with the dignity and respect they deserve and make them part of the community, not isolate them so they can’t get to the doctors, can’t get to the grocery store for fear of being found. Right now, the policy has been that whenever we do an arrest in America fingerprint arrested person and send that to a database with the FBI. They’re now going to share that with immigration. I’ve asked my commissioner, Keith Flynn, to sit down with some of the groups we’ve been working with on other issues and look at this issue and see if we can help mitigate some of their concerns.”
Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn was unreachable for comment Wednesday.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated that Santa Clara County voted to opt out of Secure Communities, when in fact they voted to opt out of ICE holds, which weakens the effect of Secure Communities.