That’s raised concern among local activists. The group Migrant Justice and an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont say the agreement could make Burlington police party to a pattern of abuses by ICE repeated across the country and make immigrants, already fearful of police, less likely to seek their help.
Police officials and advocates debated the agreement Monday at the City Council’s Public Safety Committee meeting. The three-member panel said it wants more information before bringing the agreement up for a vote. If passed by the committee, it would need approval from the full council.
The memorandum of understanding is aimed at making human trafficking investigations more efficient and allowing Burlington police greater access to federal resources when investigations cross state lines, said Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo.
The chief said he understands the concerns of advocates and hopes the agreement can be written in a way that will assuage their fears.
Abel Luna, an immigrant and activist with Migrant Justice, said regardless of its intent, the agreement will “create a barrier and drive an even deeper wedge between our community and law enforcement.”
That’s because immigrants, many of whom are fearful of police regardless of their legal status, will be less likely to report crimes if they believe calling 911 could bring them in contact with ICE, Luna said.
Del Pozo said his department doesn’t participate in immigration investigations and won’t start just because they’ve signed a new memorandum of understanding with Homeland Security Investigations, formerly ICE Investigations.
Burlington has an existing agreement with ICE that allows for federal reimbursement of expenses in joint operations. The new agreement would allow Burlington to designate police as task force officers with the ability to make arrests for violations of federal law and make sworn statements in federal court, things they can’t do currently.
Deputy Chief Jannine Wright said the current arrangement forces federal agents to act essentially as couriers for local police during joint investigations, filing paperwork or testifying in court on behalf of Burlington officers. She equated the process to a game of telephone.
Adoption of the agreement is playing out against the backdrop of a fatal Drug Enforcement Administration raid in December that was conducted using a no-knock warrant obtained in federal court by an Essex police officer who, through a similar memorandum, was acting as a DEA agent.
Jay Diaz, an attorney with the Vermont ACLU, said that’s one example of how local police deputized to act as federal agents are less accountable. He said local police should be working through the state’s court system, not looking for an end run around it.
“We want Vermont judges, not federal judges, deciding when and how they can execute search warrants,” he said.
Del Pozo said federal agents will continue to operate in Burlington regardless of whether the agreement is signed and that having local police partner with Homeland Security Investigations will actually allow for greater oversight of federal operations.
“If we hold federal agencies at arm’s length, when we act, my accountability to the people doesn’t go away, but my ability to know what’s going on and have a hand in that planning is impeded,” he said.
Diaz said it would be nice if closer ties made federal agents more accountable locally but that such partnerships are prone to “mission creep” and have resulted in abuses of power in Vermont and across the country.
Diaz cited a case where a Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles enforcement officer apparently passed information about an applicant for a driver’s privilege card to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, resulting in the applicant’s detention and a deportation proceeding.
“Not only did DMV start asking people during fraud investigations what their immigration status was, they also began setting people up for ICE detention and Border Patrol arrests,” he said.
That went beyond the scope of DMV’s fraud investigations and grew out of a close working relationship between the DMV and federal agents, according to Diaz, who is representing the applicant in the deportation case.
Del Pozo said the ACLU and Migrant Justice raise valid concerns that have to be balanced against the importance of preventing human trafficking.
He said he’s willing to look at revising the language to narrow the scope of the agreement and that he will solicit further input from the Police Commission at an upcoming meeting.
“This is the beginning of a longer conversation,” del Pozo said.