On the eve of a Town Meeting Day that will see several Vermont communities consider declaring themselves "sanctuary cities," Attorney General T.J. Donovan released legal guidelines for local officials that present nuances to the debate.
On Tuesday, Plainfield, Hartland, Calais and East Montpelier are scheduled to debate curtailing local cooperation with federal immigration authorities, while officials in Richmond also expect discussion on the issue. Montpelier, Winooski, Burlington and South Burlington are also considering sanctuary status, but are not making any decisions on Town Meeting Day.
While cautioning that the popular term "sanctuary" city or town is "undefinable," Donovan said that communities have the right to tell local officials not to expend resources enforcing immigration law.
For example, municipalities can choose not to cooperate with "immigration detainers" — requests from federal immigration authorities to hold people already in custody for up to 48 hours while they determine whether to charge them with immigration offenses. Local authorities can, in most instances, also be prohibited from asking about a person's immigration status, Donovan said.
Donovan warned that communities could expose themselves to liability for holding someone on a federal immigration detainer without enough evidence that the person has committed an immigration crime. Simply being in the country unlawfully is a civil matter, not criminal.
But communities cannot prohibit employees from sharing any information they glean about a person's immigration status with federal authorities, Donovan said.
Donovan also warned that the state does have the power to tell municipalities whether they can cooperate with immigration investigations.