The House and Senate Judiciary Committees heard from key public safety officials and advocates on the governor’s proposal, one day after he rolled it out with the attorney general.
The bill would restrict the role of state and local police in federal immigration investigations. It would also outlaw the establishment of a registry in Vermont based on religion or national origin, among other protected classes.
The language was introduced simultaneously in both chambers. Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he plans to move the bill out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, next week.
The bill would block agencies at state, municipal and county levels from collecting and disseminating personally identifying information, including religious belief, for the purpose of a national registry. As a candidate, President Donald Trump proposed creating a Muslim registry.
The legislation would also require approval from the governor for a local or state law enforcement agency to conduct federal immigration enforcement work.
Attorney General TJ Donovan told legislators at the joint hearing that he sees the bill as a “natural progression” from work lawmakers have previously done concerning fair and impartial policing.
The bill and the state’s anti-bias policing model, which was finalized last year, complement each other, he said. How police should approach immigration status was one of the final sticking points in negotiations over the policy.
Donovan said the bill strikes a balance of complying with federal law while “at the same time protecting Vermonters’ constitutional rights.”
His office is still considering some potential impacts of the legislation, he said, including whether the bill would impact a contract the state has with the federal government to hold federal detainees at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton.
Department of Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson said one of his concerns with the legislation is ensuring it does not have an adverse effect on cooperation between police and federal law enforcement.
“That relationship is very longstanding and it’s critical to the safety of all Vermonters,” Anderson said.
One lawmaker asked about whether a federal program that allows the Department of Homeland Security to deputize local and state law enforcement has been used in Vermont. Anderson said that he is not aware that it has ever been used.
Jay Diaz, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said the bill takes “important steps” and makes a statement.
“I’m really proud to live in a state where we have Republican governor who’s challenging a Republican president over the issue of immigration,” Diaz said.
The ACLU-VT proposed some changes that Diaz said would strengthen the bill.
“While the words are meaningful, the law has the opportunity to be powerful,” Diaz said.
He asked lawmakers to ensure there is consistency across the state in the implementation of the fair and impartial policing policy. Diaz said that though many law enforcement agencies in the state have adopted their own policies in line with the model, established last year, some have not done so yet.
He urged lawmakers to include a reference to the policy in the bill.
“We’re not going to stand up to the bully in Washington if we don’t include a reference to the fair and impartial policy here,” Diaz said.
Rep. Tom Burditt, R-West Rutland, said that the issue underlying the bill is broader than President Trump.
“I won’t be involved in any legislation that is going to point fingers at the bully in Washington,” Burditt said. “To me, he is not the issue.”
“In my opinion we’re fighting an assault on our rights, freedoms and liberties, which predate our present commander-in-chief by a couple of years,” Burditt said.
Rep. Gary Viens, R-Newport, said after the hearing that the bill is an “issue looking for a problem.”
A former Border Patrol agent, Viens said that in practice, the program through which the federal government can deputize local law enforcement has not been used in Vermont.
Viens has some concerns the legislation may have an impact on relationships between federal and state law enforcement. In some parts of the state, particularly along the northern border, border patrol agents often step in to assist in local police calls.
While he has faith in the strength of the relationship, he would not like to see it “muddied” by the legislation, he said.
Migrant Justice, which represents farmworkers in Vermont, some of whom do not have authorization to live and work in the country, supports the legislation, according to organization staffer Will Lambek.
“We see it as a positive step,” he said.
However, Lambek said, the group sees a need for other steps in Vermont, including ensuring the model fair and impartial policing policy is implemented by all law enforcement agencies across the state.
Within the organization’s membership, there is unease at the current shift in immigration policies, he said.
“People don’t want to go back to living in the shadows,” Lambek said.