Even as Vermont continues to lose jobs — another 2100 disappeared in March — the federal government has quietly been adding scores of positions to its Homeland Security outposts in Chittenden County.
About 420 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) employees, mostly based in Williston, are hunting fugitives, helping law- enforcement officers investigate foreign-born suspects, and performing a variety of financial duties for the Department of Homeland Security. When fully staffed, these three units will include more than 600 workers, making ICE one of the biggest employers in the Burlington area.
Tom Torti, head of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, calls the local ICE expansion “fantastic.” These federal jobs “pay well, provide good benefits and tend to be fairly recession-proof,” Torti says. “This sector — immigration, customs, the global war on terror, all the issues we see around homeland security — is likely to continue growing.” And that’s especially important, Torti adds, for “a state that’s not growing private-sector jobs.”
Williston Town Planner Ken Belliveau also welcomes the ICE buildup as “a really great boost for the local economy.” Annual salaries for these federal posts range from about $29,000 to $105,000.
But not every Vermonter views ICE’s growing presence in the state as a positive development. Joseph Gainza, Vermont program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, says the increased deployment carries the threat of heightened surveillance and a “punitive response to problems that could be dealt with in other ways.” Locally, the fugitive-tracking operations could pose a particular threat to illegal migrant farm workers who have become essential to Vermont’s dairy industry, Gainza warns.
Many of the ICE jobs have come to Vermont as a result of the influence wielded in Washington, D.C., by Sen. Patrick Leahy, who ranks fourth in seniority among the 100 U.S. senators. First elected to the Senate 35 years ago, Leahy chairs the Judiciary Committee, which has some authority over immigration policy and facilities, and he serves as a leading member of the appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security.
The senator arranged funding in 1994 for a pilot project that eventually became the Law Enforcement Support Center, now the largest ICE operation in Vermont, with 412 authorized employees. “On the Judiciary and Appropriations committees he has watched over its steady expansion,” says Leahy spokesman David Carle. And legislation that Leahy recently wrote conferred permanent status on 200 formerly temporary employees of the Williston-based center, Carle adds.
In an emailed statement, Leahy himself points out that ICE’s Law Enforcement Support Center “was born in Vermont, and Vermonters continue to prove its value every day, around the clock and across the country.” Leahy adds that he recently commended Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano “for capitalizing on [the center’s] strengths.”
The Law Enforcement Support Center provides rapid-response information to officers around the country who are investigating or who have arrested foreign nationals. The center also maintains a 24-hour tip line for the public to report activity on a broad range of ICE investigative interests, including immigration violations, child porno-graphy, sex tourism, smuggling and human trafficking.
“Senator Leahy has put a lot of effort into bringing these and other federal jobs to Vermont,” Gainza comments. But seeing the ICE expansion as simply an economic boost to the state reflects “the same mindset that gets us into a $600 billion military budget,” the Quaker activist says. Money spent to create these positions could be more advantageously applied to Vermont’s social needs, Gainza argues.
Some of the 60 current employees and contractors with ICE’s Fugitive Operations Support Center have special-agent qualifications similar to their counterparts in the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, says ICE spokesman Michael Gilhooly. Other members of the fugitive operations unit in Williston “use computer technology to help field officers target people who have been ordered removed but have refused to leave the country,” Gilhooly explains.
ICE’s website describes the operations center as “a key element in the strategy to address the burgeoning fugitive alien problem in the United States.”
Vermont may not be the first place that comes to mind as the location for a national fugitive-tracking operation, but Gilhooly says there’s nothing unusual or inconvenient about situating it here. “In today’s world, national offices can work almost anywhere,” he observes.
Another 129 ICE workers are assigned to what’s called the Burlington Finance Center, which operates out of rented offices in Maple Tree Place. This office handles a range of bookkeeping functions for ICE and other units of the Department of Homeland Security. One of its tasks, Gilhooly says, is to collect “breached bonds” — that is, money posted but forfeited by individuals who have violated the terms set for their cases by immigration authorities. The Burlington Finance Center also arranges for the return of money to individuals who have been deported from the United States or granted some type of status by an immigration judge, Gilhooly adds.