U.S. Attorney Eric Miller speaks at a press conference in July 2016. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

[W]ASHINGTON — Current and former top Vermont law enforcement officials are urging the Trump administration to abandon a new practice of separating immigrant families who enter the country illegally.

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan joined 20 other state attorneys general in a letter asking the administration to end the policy Tuesday.

Two former U.S. Attorneys for Vermont separately signed onto a letter from 60 former federal prosecutors opposing the practice.

The Trump administration has adopted a new “zero tolerance” approach to border enforcement, requiring all adults who cross into the country illegally to be arrested and held in federal prison. When parents are arrested, their children, who legally cannot be held in prison with them, are being put in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Some 2,000 children were separated from their parents at the border in a little over a month, according to federal authorities. They are being held with other children classified as unaccompanied minors in temporary shelters, like a former Walmart converted to house 1,500 children.

In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the state attorneys general called the policy “inhumane.” The policy, they said, raises questions about violations of children’s rights, which are spelled out in international, federal and state laws, as well as other constitutional guarantees.

They also argued that the policy interferes with state and local law enforcement’s ability to go after crimes like human trafficking and drug smuggling because such investigations rely on people who are victims of the crimes.

“Put simply, the deliberate separation of children and their parents who seek lawful asylum in America is wrong,” they wrote. “This practice is contrary to American values and must be stopped.”

TJ Donovan
Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan, center, with Col. Matthew Birmingham, left. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

In a statement, Donovan said the policy is “wrong.”

“I know Vermonters join me in feeling heartbroken that the federal government is needlessly separating children from their parents,” he said.

Former U.S. Attorneys for the District of Vermont Eric Miller and Tristram Coffin signed onto a letter with dozens of other former federal prosecutors calling the policy a “radical departure” from the department’s past policy.

Miller and Coffin were both appointed under the Obama administration, though others who joined in the letter served under Republican presidents.

“Traumatizing children by separating them from their parents as a deterrent for adult conduct is, in our view, sufficient reason to halt your policy,” they wrote. “But as former U.S. Attorneys, we know that the collateral consequences of this ill-advised approach ultimately render us less safe as a nation.”

The governors of Massachusetts and South Carolina have halted the deployment of National Guard troops to the southern border over the policy.

Trump put out a call for states to send forces to enforce the border in April.

Gov. Phil Scott said at the time that he was “not eager” to send the Vermont National Guard to the border, according to the Burlington Free Press.

Scott alerted state National Guard authorities at that time that he did not intend to deploy the troops to that region, according to spokesperson Rebecca Kelley.

The state has not received a formal request to participate in the deployment along the southwest border, as is a typical process, Kelley said. In a typical deployment, the state reviews a request and makes a determination.

Scott has not publicly called on the Trump administration to change the family separation policy. Kelley said he has not privately reached out to the White House regarding the policy, and is not planning on taking other actions at this time.

Scott articulated support for Rep. Peter Welch’s trip to the border over the weekend, and he is “pleased to see (the congressional delegation’s) commitment to keeping families together,” Kelley said.

The Trump administration has maintained that action to halt the practice would need to come through Congress, though the policy is a result of a change in enforcement that is within the executive branch’s authority.

Patrick Leahy
Sen. Patrick Leahy, with Gov. Phil Scott and Sen. Bernie Sanders, discuss USDA support for dairy farmers in May. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Meanwhile, multiple proposals are floating in Congress to address the situation.

House Republicans have introduced a measure that would halt family separations and make a series of major reforms to immigration policies.

Democrats have backed other measures targeted more narrowly at ending the practice.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Tuesday that he does not plan to attach language to halt the policy to an appropriations bill. The budget for the Department of Homeland Security will be under committee discussion later this week.

“We wouldn’t be able to,” Leahy said. “We don’t have the votes because Republicans won’t vote for it.”

Leahy said he hopes a solution could move through the Judiciary Committee. He has requested a hearing on the new policy.

“But there’s no law that has to be changed,” Leahy said. “I mean this is just a ruling of Trump and Jeff Sessions, and they could change it in a nanosecond.”

Twitter: @emhew. Elizabeth Hewitt is the Sunday editor for VTDigger. She grew up in central Vermont and holds a graduate degree in magazine journalism from New York University.