*Update and Clarification Below*
An immigration bust by Vermont State Police on Tuesday, and the subsequent arrest of protesters, is sending shock waves around the state.
Earlier today, two undocumented migrant farm workers — one of them an outspoken critic of a controversial immigration enforcement program — were detained by state police following a routine traffic stop on I-89 in Middlesex and handed over to the U.S. Border Patrol. Brendan O'Neill, an organizer with the VT Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project, said farm workers Danilo Lopez and Antonio Mesa (whose last name is unknown) were racially profiled by state police after a car they were passengers in was pulled over for speeding — a violation of the Vermont State Police's bias-free policing policy, O'Neill claims.
The situation escalated this afternoon, when activists from the Solidarity Project showed up at the Middlesex state police barracks to protest the farm workers' expected deportation. When the Border Patrol tried to leave with the handcuffed immigrants in SUVs, five of the protesters locked arms and blocked the government vehicle — provoking a standoff that ended with three of them being carted off and arrested. (See video above).
Later Tuesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin ordered an investigation into the traffic stop.
"The Governor is concerned by accounts of the incident and ordered an immediate internal investigation to determine the facts of what happened and if Vermont State Police bias-free policies were followed," a statement from the governor's office read. "In addition, he has instructed his legal counsel to lead a review of State Police policies relating to undocumented workers in the state with an eye toward ensuring bias-free policing conduct is observed in all settings."
The immigrants were passengers in a vehicle driven by a friend, Bill Hoag of North Randolph. According to Vermont State Police, Hoag was pulled over for driving 88 mph in a 65 mph zone on I-89 in Middlesex. Hoag produced valid identification, the state police said, and was "released with the possibility of a future civil citation."
"Through the course of the traffic stop it was learned that the passengers were allegedly residing illegally in the United States," a state police press release said. "Troopers contacted U.S. Border Patrol, and Border Patrol agents issued an Immigration Detainer requesting that the Vermont State Police detain the individuals until their arrival at the Middlesex Barracks. At the time of this press release, both subjects were released by the U.S. Border Patrol with a Notice to Appear at a future date."
The director of the state police, Col. Tom L'Esperance, issued a written statement about the incident, stating, "An internal investigation has been order[sic], as well as a review of policies relating to incidents involving undocumented workers in the state to ensure bias-free policing conduct in all settings. The Vermont State Police take seriously the necessity of ensuring fair and humane treatment of all people living and working in Vermont, regardless of their race, ethnicity, immigration status, or other personal criteria."
Three protesters were cited and released for disorderly conduct: John J. MacLean, 51, of Burlington; Brendan O’Neill, 38, of Underhill; and Avery Brook, 29, of Burlington.
Last fall, Attorney General Bill Sorrell unveiled a bias-free policing policy that takes a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to immigration status — and urged all local police agencies to adopt it. At the time, he declared that Vermont was no Arizona. In July, L'Esperance told Seven Days that state troopers follow a bias-free policy that is "consistent" with Sorrell's. But this incident — and others like it — raise questions about that.
Mandy Park is an immigration activist who co-authored a set of bias-free policing recommendations that informed Sorrell's recommended policy. On Tuesday afternoon, she was outside Middlesex barracks working for the farm workers' release and noted those recommendations list the state police among the Vermont agencies that adhere to bias-free policing.
"We should remove them from the list," said Park, who works with the Central Vermont Farmworker Coalition. "As far as we're concerned, they are not practicing bias-free policing at all."
Outside the Middlesex barracks, the driver of the car, Bill Hoag, was remorseful about the situation.
"It's my fault," Hoag said. "I got pulled over for speeding and [the trooper] started to question them. We were headed back to their place. They're just friends. My wife and I had them over for dinner because they fixed up a little lawn tractor."
(Pictured: Natalia Farjardo of the VT Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project embraces Lopez as he's led to the Border Patrol SUV.)
According to Hoag, during the stop State Trooper Jared Hatch radioed back to a supervisor to check whether he could ask the passengers about their immigration status. As Hoag recalls, the trooper then told him that he could, as long as the farm workers were not victims of or witnesses to a crime. When Lopez and Antonio couldn't produce documentation, police took them into custody and called the Border Patrol.
"I was never even given a traffic ticket," Hoag said later.
Brendan O'Neill acknowledges the farm workers weren't able to produce valid visas, but maintains that under the Vermont State Police bias-free policing policy, the trooper had no right to ask for papers unless the farm workers were suspected of crimes.
Lopez is a 22-year-old Mexican employed at a horse farm in Charlotte. Recently he has become the public face of an organizing campaign by Vermont migrant farm workers — many of them employed illegally on dairy farms — against a controversial federal immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communities. (This file photo was taken three weeks ago in Montpelier when Lopez and a fellow farm worker hand-delivered a petition signed by 70 migrant laborers asking Shumlin to reject Secure Communities. Later that morning, they held a press conference on the statehouse steps.)
Less is known about Antonio Mesa — including his last name. Activists with the VT Migrant Farm Workers Solidarity Project weren't familiar with him and Hoag didn't know much about him.
Under Secure Communities, local police agencies share fingerprints with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The program's goal is to catch and deport criminal aliens, but it has come under fire for sweeping up large numbers of undocumented immigrants with no criminal records. Vermont has not enacted the program but the Obama administration has pledged to expand it nationwide by 2013.
Despite his outspokenness, Lopez's arrest appears to be pure coincidence.
From inside the state police holding cell, Lopez texted a message to O'Neill of the Solidarity Project at 12:44 p.m. Tuesday, who relayed it to the world. As translated by O'Neill, the message read:
"My name is Danilo. Today the police stopped us. Though there was no reason to ask for my documented status they did and only for being a different color from our friend who was driving. We chose to remain silent to not have more problems. He called the Border Patrol quickly. If this message reaches the governor it is so he can see our cruel reality. We spoke with him not too long ago about this 'Polimigra' and we have another meeting that now I will not be able to attend."
Here's all the video, start to finish. It begins with Border Patrol agents leading a handcuffed Lopez out of the state police barracks and into their vehicle.
Five protesters from the VT Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project locked arms in front of the Border Patrol vehicle, attempting to stop it from leaving.
When they refused to move out of the way, state police moved in to arrest the group. Three of the five were handcuffed and charged with disorderly conduct for impeding traffic.
The Farmworker Solidarity Project had scheduled a vigil for Tuesday evening outside the Border Patrol station in Richford.
*Update and Clarification*
Update: Danilo Lopez and Antonio Mesa were released by the U.S. Border Patrol late on Tuesday evening with citations to appear in court at a future, unspecified date.
Clarification: This post stated that Mandy Park of the Central Vermont Migrant Farmworkers Coalition "co-authored a set of bias-free policing recommendations that informed [Attorney General Bill] Sorrell's recommended policy." Park co-authored a document entitled "Action Pack: Bias Free Policing Across Vermont. An End to Police Profiling for Communities of Color and Immigrants." Download the Action Pack here. That document was released after Sorrell announced his recommended bias-free policy for Vermont police agencies in October 2010. However, Park was involved in discussions in June 2010 with Sorrell to gather feedback and suggestions on an early draft of the bias-free policy. In the end, Sorrell did adopt some of the recommendations suggested at that June meeting.