The federal Department of Justice is withholding more than $2 million in law enforcement grants from Vermont pending a review of the state’s compliance with a federal law that requires local officials to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
“These grants are the DOJ Byrne JAG grant and the DOJ COPS Anti-Heroin Task Force grant,” VSP spokesman Adam Silverman wrote in an email to Seven Days.
The feds are refusing to pay the state a promised $1.3 million toward heroin enforcement until Justice Department officials are convinced that Vermont is in compliance with federal law, according to Silverman. Another two grants, for about $480,000 each, are also on hold.
The federal law in question says that a “government entity or official may not prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual.”
Rep. Martin LaLonde (D-South Burlington) is the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, which heard testimony from Vermont State Police last week about the suspended grants.
“Of course we’re concerned,” LaLonde said Friday, adding that the committee plans to hear testimony from Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson about what his staff is doing to convince the Justice Department that Vermont is in compliance with federal law.
LaLonde said it’s too soon to determine whether legislative action could fix the situation. Both he and Silverman maintained that Vermont is in compliance with federal law, and LaLonde said he’d rather not see lawmakers change the state’s policy just to unlock the funds.
Rebecca Kelley, spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott, wrote in an email Friday that Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson asked DOJ in November to offer specific examples of non-compliance with federal law.
Kelley said Anderson "heard back this week that the DOJ will be sending a response. In the meantime, he’s also secured assurance that once awarded —and we remain confident the funds will be awarded — the State will be reimbursed for expenses that would have been covered by the grant retroactively."
While the situation creates a temporary hole in the budget for Vermont’s cops fighting the opiate crisis, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. In fact, the DOJ seems to be following through on threats by President Donald Trump and his former attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Both men cautioned that “sanctuary cities” and states with similar policies may lose their federal funds.
In 2017, responding to concerns that Trump would attempt to create a database of Muslims in America as part of a wider immigration crackdown, Vermont lawmakers passed a bill with support from Scott that put strict limits on the information local and state police are allowed to share with immigration officials.
Vermont police are also required to follow a Fair and Impartial Policing policy, which is designed to foster trust between law enforcement and undocumented immigrants by discouraging cops from reporting anyone to immigration authorities in most situations.
According to Silverman, that policy is one of the sticking points for the feds.
Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan is backing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the very same federal law that the Justice Department maintains Vermont is failing to follow.
In November, Vermont joined 11 other states and Washington, D.C., in a court filing supporting the State of California, which is challenging the constitutionality of the federal law. The coalition wrote in their brief that local governments have the right to direct their cops as they see fit — even if that means limiting their collaboration with federal immigration officials.
"Such limitations reflect local judgments about the policies and practices that are most effective for maintaining public safety and community health—values that lie at the core of the police power historically reserved for the states and often delegated to their local jurisdictions," the brief says.
The Justice Department's public affairs office did not immediately respond to a Seven Days inquiry on Friday.