The two undocumented farm workers turned over to the federal immigration authorities by the Vermont State Police last week have filed a racial profiling complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission, asserting that the state trooper's suspicion was based solely on the color of their skin.
Danilo Lopez (pictured in hat) and Antonio Meza-Sandoval, both from Mexico, were detained following a traffic stop on I-89 in Middlesex on September 13, when a car in which they were passengers was pulled over for going 88 mph. On Monday, they filed a formal complaint at the Human Rights Commission offices.
"We are hopeful that this process will confirm that what happened was discriminatory so that it won't happen again to anyone in Vermont," Lopez said in a statement. "We also hope that the State will take measures to improve its Bias-Free-Policing policy and clearly direct police to not discriminate based on suspected immigration status."
The complaint follows public release of the police video (above) from the cruiser that stopped the car the farm workers were riding in. After viewing the 35-minute video, Lopez said he "re-lived the officer's pressure. He focused immediately on us upon approaching the vehicle. He threatened me with one last chance to speak up 'or else,' even though I wanted to remain silent."
Also, state Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington) is wading into the controversy, saying in a statement released by the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project that, "Upon watching clips of the detention of Danilo and Antonio, I am deeply concerned as both a state legislator and a person of color. We cannot reasonably enforce broken federal immigration policies in our state that are disconnected from the reality of our agricultural needs and practices. This incident strengthens my resolve to end racial profiling in Vermont, and I look forward to working with Governor Shumlin to that end."
The Solidarity Project believes that since the farm workers exhibited no suspicious behavior and there were no suspicious items in the car, the officer based his questioning and handling of the situation solely on the farm workers' appearance.
"I am convinced that if the passengers had been blue-eyed and blond, the State trooper would have engaged them differently," said Natalia Fajardo (pictured), an organizer with the Solidarity Project. "This confirms to me that today, in Vermont, being brown constitutes suspicious conduct in the eyes of the police."
Gov. Peter Shumlin has ordered an investigation of the traffic stop to determine whether it violated the state police's "bias free policing" policy, a probe being conducted by the state police. On Monday, Lopez and Meza-Sandoval were interviewed as part of that investigation by state police Capt. Timothy Clouatre. Afterwards, the Solidarity Project called for an independent review of the stop with oversight by "leaders from Vermont's diverse communities of color who are most affected by racial profiling."
Lopez (pictured below in hat) has been an outspoken leader of the Vermont Farmworker Solidarity Project. Weeks before his arrest, he hand-delivered a petition signed by 70 migrant farmworkers to Gov. Peter Shumlin, asking him to take a stand against a controversial federal immigrantion enforcement program known as Secure Communities.
The police video of the stop shows Trooper Jared Hatch approaching the car and first asking the driver, a U.S. citizen from Randolph Center, "Where you headed?"
"Charolotte," the driver replies.
"What's up there for you?" the trooper asks.
"Work," the driver replies.
Later, the trooper can be heard asking, "You folks related?" and "What country are you from?", to which the farm workers answered "Mexico." When the trooper asked, "Be straight with me. You're legal to be in the United States right now?", the farmworkers answered no.
Later in the video, when the driver apparently challenges the trooper's right to question his passengers, Hatch responds, "I can talk to anyone in the vehicle I want to. Part of my job is to determine [whether they are here illegally.] If I let them go down the road and they weren't good kids — something bad happened, then what?"
Photo of Natalia Fajardo by Matthew Thorsen.