BURLINGTON — More than 130 protesters packed into the Burlington City Council meeting Tuesday night to voice their support for a resolution that would close loopholes in the state’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy, and to express their frustration that a vote on the resolution was not on the meeting’s agenda.
The loopholes in the policy make it easier for local law enforcement to collaborate with agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement by allowing local police to report the immigration status of individuals reporting crimes and allowing police to ask about a person’s immigration status if it is suspected they recently crossed the border. The policy also currently allows police to collaborate with immigrations agents in the name of “public safety” and allows immigration officials access to people in police custody.
Perri Freeman, the city councilor for the Central District who submitted the resolution for a vote, called the loopholes “inhumane” and said they make communities less safe overall.
“It discourages people from even contacting law enforcement because they’re afraid of being challenged about their status,” she said in an interview. “We want people to feel like they can trust law enforcement.”
The effort to pass resolutions like this one across the state is known as the No Más Polimigra campaign and is being led by Migrant Justice, a migrant workers advocacy group. Polimigra is a combination of the Spanish words for police and immigration agents. Winooski is the only city to have passed a resolution of this kind to date.
In Burlington, the No Más Polimigra effort is also supported by Community Voices for Immigrant Rights, a coalition that was created last summer to plan immigrant rights protests. Migrant Justice and Community Voices were among the organizers and co-sponsors of Tuesday’s protest along with the Vermont ACLU, 350 Vermont, and a number of other organizations.
The Burlington City Council past a Fair and Impartial Policing Policy in June 2017. The state passed its model policy in December 2017, and since then Burlington has used a combination of its policy and the state’s in accordance with state law.
Before the City Council meeting started, protesters gathered with signs and banners in the snow outside City Hall for a rally at which five speakers talked about the importance of protecting immigrants’ rights.
Asma Elhuni, who is working to have a similar resolution passed where she lives in Hartford, called on the crowd to organize politically around this issue.
“Human safety is not an opinion. You can’t have an opinion about human safety. This is about human rights,” she said. “We need to tell [the council] that if they don’t care about everyone in this community we’re going to organize and we’re going to remove them from their positions.”
Rosie Alfaro, a member of the Migrant Justice coordinating committee, spoke about the fear migrants feel knowing that any encounter with local law enforcement might trigger detainment and deportation.
“We demand that the city pass the No Más Polimigra policy so that we no longer live in fear of being detained,” she said, with Migrant Justice organizer Will Lambek acting as her translator. “We want to be able to leave our homes without the fear, without the terror, that an encounter with a police officer will result in our deportation.”
During the rally, organizers informed the crowd that the City Council had not scheduled a vote on the resolution this month because it was not “time sensitive” compared to other agenda items.
Ashley Smith, an organizer with Community Voices, does not believe this issue can wait for another time.
“In our minds this is a state of emergency, and this is probably the most time sensitive social justice question in the United States today,” he said. “We’re not going to stop until this is won in the city.”
City Council President Kurt Wright capped the public comment section at one hour, although in the end it lasted closer to an hour and 20 minutes. Each speaker had two minutes to address the council, and 24 people spoke about the No Más Polimigra campaign. Many of the speakers were local college students, and several were migrant farmworkers who shared personal stories of being arrested and detained by law enforcement.
Wright said that the vote on the resolution would be taken up at the March 9 meeting; several speakers expressed their frustration that the vote would be after the upcoming election on March 3.
Freeman said she hopes that taking this issue to the local level helps effect statewide change during a time when the federal government is rolling back personal protections for a number of groups.
“Local law enforcement is not meant to do the job of federal immigration and customs enforcement and monitor people’s status in terms of documentation,” she said. “This is a misuse of taxpayer funds and it’s completely unequal.”
Alfaro said she was encourage by local support for the resolution. Enrique Balcazar, one of the migrant workers who spoke at the meeting, expressed a similar sentiment.
“It’s exciting to see solidarity from the residents of Burlington and Vermont,” he said, in an interview conducted in Spanish. “We are joining this movement to become a state that respects the rights of immigrants and does not invest resources to allow the police to collaborate with immigration agents to deport people.”
Smith said that Community Voices intends to see this initiative through, even if that means reintroducing the resolution once the next city council is in session or pushing to make it the subject of a referendum.