MONTPELIER, Vt. — Police should take a "don't ask, don't tell" approach about the immigration status of migrant farmworkers and others unless they're suspected of a crime or wanted by federal authorities, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said Friday.
Unveiling a proposed "Bias-Free Policing" policy that also covers racial profiling, the state's chief law enforcement officer said that barring suspicion of terrorism, human trafficking or hate crimes or a history of violence or gang activity, Vermont police officers should only inquire about immigration status in limited circumstances — not when a person has been the victim of a crime or a witness to one.
"What we're trying to see here is that if you're otherwise law-abiding, you're here in Vermont, you're not a threat to homeland security, you're not wanted for criminal behavior here or elsewhere ... then the priority for Vermont law enforcement is to investigate violations of Vermont criminal laws," Sorrell said.
The proposal will be distributed to every law enforcement agency in the state, but it's up to each to decide whether to adopt it.
Vermont has an estimated 2,000 migrant farmworkers — from Mexico mostly — without whom agriculture officials say the state's dairy industry could barely survive. Not all are in the country legally.
Some communities, including Middlebury, have taken a "don't ask, don't tell" approach, under the theory that if illegal immigrants are afraid of being deported, they're less likely to report crime or help police investigating it.
"Guest workers are an extremely important part of our work force on farms and in agriculture in Vermont," state Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee said. "They have been for many years and they continue to be. People need to be able to work and not be afraid that they can't make their views known and their concerns available to anyone."
Sorrell said police officers investigating state crimes by illegal immigrants would have the discretion to report violations to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as they see fit.
Not everyone thinks that approach is the right one.
"The policy itself is pretty toothless, but the problem I see is that it's pretty clearly an attempt on the part of the Attorney General to discourage Vermont law enforcement agencies from cooperating with ICE, to help ICE do its job enforcing immigration and people who've committed crimes and who are foreign nationals," said Jessica Vaughan, a policy analyst for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for tougher immigration laws.
"If local law enforcement were to get the idea that they're not to ask questions or report people to ICE, that could have some serious public safety implications," Vaughan said.
The racial profiling part of the policy stems from complaints that police in a state whose population is 96.2 percent white routinely pull over minority motorists for what some colloquially refer to as "driving while black."
Under the policy, police would not be allowed to consider race, ethnicity or other personal characteristics in establishing reasonable suspicion or probable cause, but they would be allowed to take it into account in cases where "criteria of suspects based on credible, reliable, locally relevant information that links persons of specific description ... to particular criminal incidents."
Last year, Vermont State Police and police departments in Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski committed to keep tabs on the race and ethnicity of drivers involved in traffic stops after a chairman of a Vermont panel to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said minorities believe racial profiling by police is pervasive in the state.
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The three municipal agencies are to report their findings next month, the State Police sometime next year.
"I think it's an epidemic," said Hal Colston of Winooski, director of NeighborKeepers, a community organization. "I think the data will reveal that we do have a problem. Anecdotally, you talk to any person of color and you'd be blown away" by their personal experiences, he said.
Of the Attorney General's policy, he said: "I hope this is just the beginning of this process, to create a community where there is bias-free policing."