Gov. Peter Shumlin has added fuel to the fire over this week's bust of undocumented migrant farm workers by the Vermont State Police.
In an interview with WPTZ-TV's Stewart Ledbetter yesterday, Shumlin said Vermont should "look the other way" when it comes to dealing with immigrants working illegally on Vermont farms. "We have always had a policy in Vermont where we kind of look the other way as much as we can," Shumlin told WPTZ. "I just want to make sure that's what's we're doing. [Vermont farms] can't survive without workers from outside America. It's just the way it is. "
On Tuesday, two farm workers from Mexico — one of them an outspoken activist — were turned over to the U.S. Border Patrol after state police stopped a car in which they were passengers for speeding. Members of the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project branded the incident "racial profiling" and formed a human chain to block the border patrol SUVs from driving off with the farm workers — leading to the arrest of three protesters. (Clip below, full video here).
Shumlin ordered an investigation of the incident on Tuesday to determine whether the traffic stop violated with the state police's "bias-free policing policy."
Not surprisingly, the Vermont Republican Party pounced on the gov's "look the other way" comment — after first explaining why Shumlin was partially correct.
"The governor may be correct that there is a need for foreign workers on many Vermont farms, just as there is a need for foreign workers in many of our resort towns," GOP chairwoman Pat McDonald said in a statement issued Friday afternoon. "But Gov. Shumlin's comments that the policy of the State Police should be to 'look the other way' in some cases is completely irresponsible of any elected leader. "
What do McDonald and the Vermont GOP think Shumlin should be doing about the problem?
"Rather than turning a blind eye to laws he doesn't like, Gov. Shumlin should be working with our congressional delegation, as former Gov. Douglas and Sen. Leahy did, towards finding legal solutions that would make every foreign worker in Vermont compliant with federal law, and that wouldn't result in a depression of wages for those foreign workers that are in Vermont legally," McDonald's statement read.
"The hardworking officers of the Vermont State Police took an oath to uphold the law," the GOP statement went on. "The governor's new policy of 'look the other way' may sound good to those that support illegal immigration, but it is not the appropriate guidance a sitting governor should be giving to Vermont's law enforcement community."
(Video: Protesters from the VT Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project being arrested for impeding the Border Patrol vehicles).
The WPTZ interview with Shumlin ends with the governor asking: "My question is this: Do we have a clear policy that we give our law enforcement folks?"
The answer depends on which police agency you're talking about.
Police departments in several Vermont towns with immigrant populations have adopted policies that amount to "look the other way" when it comes to enforcing immigration law — notably Burlington, Winooski and Middlebury. Last fall, Vermont's top law enforcer, Attorney General Bill Sorrell, proposed a policy that urges every police agency in the state to adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to the issue. Other police departments have no bias-free policies on the books.
Vermont State Police's bias-free policing policy, obtained Friday by Seven Days, is four pages long — and offers general guidelines but few specific instructions. The first two pages explain what a trooper is supposed to do if someone calls with a complaint that is solely based on someone's race, gender, immigration status or other "personal criteria." According to the policy, state police should first explore whether there are any "behaviors" that call for police response. The trooper should then contact a shift supervisor, who will call the complainant and explain that, barring evidence of criminal conduct, state police do not investigate individuals solely based on these personal criteria.
The policy spells out that, pursuant to the Constitution, detentions, traffic stops, arrests, searches and seizures must be based on "reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or other required standards." What does that mean? It means that troopers "will not consider race, ethnicity, or other personal criteria in establishing either reasonable suspicion or probable cause." However, there's a caveat: State police may take into account race, immigration status and other personal criteria of suspects if "credible" and "reliable" information "links persons of specific description criteria to particular criminal incidents."
The police was first adopted in 2003 and revised most recently on July 15, 2011.
State police did have a legitimate reason for making the traffic stop on Tuesday. The driver, Bill Hoag, a U.S. citizen from North Randolph, was traveling 88 mph on Interstate 89 in Middlesex when police stopped him. The question may be whether police had legitimate reasons to suspect farm workers Danilo Lopez and Antonio Mesa of being here illegally and to ask about their identification.
The Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project has questioned why the men were asked for ID, since they were passengers and were not driving the car; the group claims that racial profiling was at work. State police have not said how they became aware that the workers were undocumented; the state police press release only states, "Through the course of the traffic stop it was learned that the passengers were allegedly residing illegally in the United States."
Vermont State Police spokeswoman Stephani Dasaro did not immediately respond on Friday to questions about the traffic stop, including whether state police routinely ask passengers for identification.