- Aaron Shrewsbury
The nondescript two-story brick building with tinted windows sits in a Williston business park, and a sign out front says only "188 Harvest Lane." A passerby would have no idea that the office is home to a specialized branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement called the Law Enforcement Support Center.
The LESC has operated quietly for years in Vermont. Although President Donald Trump's crackdown on undocumented immigrants has drawn increased attention to immigration enforcement — and sparked a flurry of protests over local ICE arrests — the Williston center continues to operate in relative anonymity.
Roughly 400 workers there staff the national nerve center. They aid much of ICE's work, providing data about people's immigration status to federal agents and local cops, which can lead to arrests.
The center, which operates 24-7, says it can turn around a "hit confirmation" of an undocumented immigrant within 10 minutes of receiving an inquiry.
ICE operations in Williston have other functions, too. They share information about criminal immigrants with federal officials and international agencies, and help the U.S. Secret Service screen people seeking to visit the White House. Workers there also do the bookkeeping for ICE.
But aiding law enforcement is the center's big job. In fiscal year 2015, the center received 1.4 million law enforcement requests for identification and immigration-status information, ICE reported, and placed "detainers" on nearly 5,000 people. Those are requests to delay releasing an inmate until authorities decide whether to file immigration charges. Many criminals get deported after serving their time.
This activity in a state that recently passed a law to prevent local cops from entering agreements to act as enforcers of immigration laws.
Some police departments in Vermont seldom encounter people suspected of immigration violations. And local policies bar many departments, including Burlington's, from routinely asking about immigration status.
"No one in the Burlington Police Department can remember utilizing it," Chief Brandon del Pozo said. "We have very limited interaction with ICE because so few investigations we deal with or situations we encounter have the type of immigration nexus that requires working with them."
Relations between the federal agency and local police can be strained. ICE last month included Montpelier on a list of municipalities that it says declined to cooperate with federal immigration enforcers.
The capital city enacted the state's model Fair and Impartial Policing Policy, which forbids local officials from recognizing ICE detainers for noncriminal infractions. It is unclear what penalties communities that appear on the list will face, though Trump has proposed withholding their federal funding.
Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos said the department has not had any recent dealings with ICE and said he believes the city was listed for symbolic reasons.
"We figured we were the punching bag because we're the capital city," Facos said.
How is it that the LESC found a home in sleepy, liberal Vermont?
The answer is simple: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
In 1994, Leahy lined up funding for a pilot project that gave birth to the center. In its early days, it was tasked with identifying and locating undocumented immigrants with serious felony records. Leahy, with influential perches on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the subcommittee that oversees the Department of Homeland Security spending, has since helped the Williston office expand.
Local officials have long viewed the center as a welcome source of steady employment. A recently posted job there for an IT specialist comes with a minimum starting salary of $85,000. The positions provide generous benefits.
"Those kinds of jobs, a region would kill to have them," said Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce president Tom Torti, noting that people tend to keep them for a while.
In many ways, the LESC is an ideal neighbor, Williston town officials said.
"I've had virtually no dealings with them at all," planning and zoning director Ken Belliveau said. "They operate in the background."
Leahy hasn't hesitated to brag about the center's work. In 2005, he called the Williston employees the "unsung heroes" of national law enforcement. But these days, Leahy and other elected leaders are questioning ICE's overall direction.
ICE has sparked outrage for arresting and attempting to deport three undocumented immigrants who have worked on behalf of the local advocacy organization Migrant Justice. Over three days in late March, ICE arrested Enrique Balcazar, Zully Palacios and Cesar Alex Carrillo in Burlington. Carrillo had a DUI charge that was later dismissed; the other two have no history of arrests. Their attorney has alleged that ICE targeted the trio because of their ties to Migrant Justice.
"Instead of focusing on removing those people who pose a threat to public safety or national security, the Trump administration is targeting all undocumented persons, including the people that help keep our dairy farms and rural economy afloat," the state's congressional delegation said in a joint statement. Trump's policies are "tearing families and communities apart, and endangering our dairy farms here in Vermont," they said.
The delegation and other officials met with ICE two weeks ago to voice concern about the potential impact of an immigration crackdown on Vermont's dairy industry, which relies on migrant labor.
Leahy spokesman David Carle said the senator does not regret his support for the Williston center, despite his concerns about recent ICE activities.
"In the Trump administration, as during the Obama administration, the LESC and its staff don't develop the policies promulgated by the president and [Homeland Security]," Carle said in a written statement. "They are directed to implement the directives they are given."
Some law enforcement agencies in Vermont have more frequent contact with ICE than others. As Seven Days reported last week, public documents show that some detectives with the Department of Motor Vehicles have had a long-term and cozy relationship with ICE.
The DMV last year paid a $40,000 settlement to a Jordanian man after he complained to the Vermont Human Rights Commission that the DMV discriminated against him. When he tried to obtain a driver's privilege card in 2014, which the state provides to undocumented immigrants, the DMV alerted ICE — leading to his arrest on immigration charges.
Despite language in the August settlement restricting the department's contact with ICE, some DMV detectives continued to work with federal immigration enforcers, records show.
"Vermont police have no business questioning someone about their right to be here — that's not their job," said American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont executive director James Lyall. "And if they try to do it, they're going to mess up, they're going to be liable, and they're going to destroy their relationship with the community they are supposed to be serving."
What's it like to work at the LESC? Seven Days wanted to talk to ICE about that, but the agency didn't cooperate. Spokespeople refused to speak on the phone, insisting that even the most straightforward questions be made in writing.
In late March, Seven Days requested a tour of the Williston office. ICE responded to that request quickly — and rejected it.
A Seven Days reporter dropped by anyway to see what the Williston center looks like and got as far as the building's vestibule. In the lobby, beyond a set of locked doors, two rotund security guards stood watch near a metal detector.
Through an intercom system, the guards declined to make anyone available for comment or accept a business card should someone want to respond to Seven Days.
The National ICE Council, the Washington, D.C.-based union that represents ICE employees, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
If ICE is largely silent, its critics are not.
"Vermont's economy," said Migrant Justice spokesman Will Lambek, "shouldn't be built on human suffering and the nerve center for a tool of mass deportation."