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Walters: Immigration Bill Hits the Track


Attorney General T.J. Donovan testifying on S.79 - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Attorney General T.J. Donovan testifying on S.79
Legislative action began Friday on a bill that would bar local law enforcement agencies from taking an active role in President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration enforcement.

Gov. Phil Scott has rejected Trump’s request that state and local law enforcement assist in the federal crackdown. Senate bill 79 would bar local authorities from making their own arrangements with the feds.

The bill received its first hearing at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, which heard largely positive testimony with a couple of caveats. No votes were taken; another hearing is scheduled for next week.

“This bill creates consistency and transparency,” said Attorney General T.J. Donovan. “It draws a bright line, complying with federal law while protecting the rights of Vermonters.” Donovan is a member of the governor’s civil rights cabinet, which formulated the legislation.

A pair of Northeast Kingdom lawmakers, Rep. Gary Viens (R-Newport) and Rep. Janssen Willhoit (R-St. Johnsbury), were concerned with the potential for harming relationships between local and federal agencies. In the Kingdom, Willhoit noted, local law enforcement is thin on the ground, and the Border Patrol is an invaluable partner. Viens and Willhoit were reassured by Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson.

“My overriding concern in examining this bill was to protect those partnerships,” Anderson said. “That’s why I attempted to draw it as narrowly as possible.”

Indeed, the bill is narrowly drawn. It addresses one very specific aspect of the Trump orders: the request for assistance from state and local law enforcement.
Even as lawmakers act, the limits of the state’s power have been on display at the Canadian border, where five Canadians of Moroccan descent have been denied entry into the U.S.

The current situation also brings to mind the Border Patrol’s claim that it can stop and search anyone within 100 miles of the Canadian border — an area that includes more than 90 percent of Vermont’s population. As recently as 2014, the Border Patrol mulled establishment of a permanent checkpoint on I-91 in the Upper Valley, where it had frequently set up temporary checkpoints.

A pair of concerns went unanswered at the S.79 hearing.

Rep. Selene Colburn (P-Burlington) noted that the bill gives the governor sole authority to block a federal and local agreement, but what about the reverse? “Could the governor mandate that a local jurisdiction should enter into a federal agreement?” she inquired.

Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington), the primary sponsor of S.79, indicated that the question would be addressed when the bill undergoes “mark-up,” the fine-tuning process that occurs before a committee vote.

The other concern came from a pair of county sheriffs — Roger Marcoux Jr. of Lamoille and Bill Bohnyak of Orange. They pointed to a section of S.79 that barred local agencies from creating databases that might be used by the feds in immigration enforcement, and questioned whether it was at odds with a state requirement that local law enforcement collect race-based data on traffic stops.

That mandate was part of an effort to limit bias in law enforcement. Marcoux and Bohnyak mulled the “unintended consequence” of the requirement. “We could be inadvertently setting up a registry with the race data,” Marcoux noted.

Bohnyak sees S.79 as an opportunity to overturn the mandate. “I was against collecting the data, I was forced to do it and I did it,” he said. “And now, when they start pushing with the immigration, they say, ‘Stop, we’re not going to create [databases for the feds].’ So let’s just not do it at all.”

Marcoux favors the race data initiative, but he says there’s a potential conflict with S.79. Members of the two committees promised to consider their concerns.

Aside from the questions from Colburn and the sheriffs, there was broad consensus among committee members that the bill will move forward quickly. Members of both parties agree on the merits of S.79 as, if nothing else, a symbolic stand against what Scott has called “federal overreach.”

It’s likely to become law before too long, and it may have precious little impact. Marcoux noted that there’s little interest among his colleagues in helping federal authorities; they have more than enough on their own plates.