Voters in Hartford will decide whether they want their town to flout federal law when they weigh in on a Town Meeting Day ballot item that would impose new restrictions on communication between local police and federal immigration authorities.
The Hartford Selectboard voted 5-2 Tuesday evening to put a so-called "Welcoming City Ordinance" on town meeting ballots in March. The ordinance would prohibit town employees, including police officers, from sharing information about a person's immigration or citizenship status with federal immigration authorities.
The selectboard had previously considered adopting the ordinance on behalf of the town. But Selectman Alan Johnson said a decision of that gravity should be put to a public referendum.
"If we are going to challenge federal law, as much as I support that in this case, I'm not the person to make that decision for this town," Johnson said. "This board is not, I don't think, appropriate in making that decision for this town. It should be supported by the voters."
Federal law prohibits states and municipalities from instituting policies that ban police from sharing information about a person's immigration or citizenship status with federal agencies; language in the proposed ordinance would directly conflict with that statute.
Proponents of the proposed ordinance, however, say it would improve protections for undocumented immigrants in Hartford, by severing the communication link between local police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Border Patrol.
Hartford resident Asma Elhuni is part of a local organization, called Rise! Upper Valley, that's been pushing for the Welcoming City Ordinance. She said the arrest of 18 undocumented immigrants in the Upper Valley region by Border Patrol agents last month lends new urgency to passage of the ordinance.
"Our community … is in a state of panic," Elhuni said Tuesday. "We are doing rapid response to try to respond, but in the meantime I think there should be some responsibility put on the town to protect its immigrant population."
In voting to put the ordinance to a townwide ballot initiative, however, selectboard members managed to upset virtually all of the local constituencies that have been following the issue, including Rise! Upper Valley.
Elhuni said that by sending the question to a referendum, members of the selectboard are "abdicating their responsibility of protecting immigrants … when they have the ability to give immigrants rights now."
"I think back of the time we tried to desegregate schools, and the public wasn't ready to do that. But we did the responsible thing of making sure that that did happen, and then education happened afterwards," Elhuni said. "But here we have a situation where we are worried about the opinions of people who are not directly impacted, more so than those who are horrified and scared of what possibilities can come into their lives."
Town staff also oppose the ballot measure, but for different reasons than Elhuni. Town Manager Brannon Godfrey said he preferred no change to the town's policing policies. But he said that if the selectboard is going to put a proposed ordinance on the ballot, then it ought to present one that isn't in violation of federal law.
Godfrey pushed for a version of the ordinance that would prohibit police from asking about a person's immigration or citizenship status, but that would not ban them from sharing that type of information with federal authorities. Godfrey said that so-called "savings clause" would minimize the risk that Hartford will be found to be in violation of federal law.
Without that clause, Godfrey said, the town risks losing out on millions of dollars in funding that could be withheld by federal agencies as a result of non-compliance with federal law.
"There's a huge array of services that we provide or that are provided here in Hartford with the federal support, everything from elections to abuse prevention for senior citizens," Godfrey said. "And if you're going to make a policy change of any kind, I implore you to consider to have one with a savings clause in it."
But selectboard member Alan Johnson said he views the ordinance as a mechanism to "challenge" the federal law that Godfrey is worried about violating.
"We're trying to work within the system that we have, created by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, to challenge the federal law that shouldn't be there in the first place, and certainly is being abused by the current administration," Johnson said.
Selectboard member Jameson Davis said Godfrey has overstated the amount of federal funds that could be in jeopardy if Hartford adopts the Welcoming City Ordinance. Godfrey suggested the town's liability could exceed $24 million — the entirety of federal funds that flow to Hartford.
"This information is definitely misleading, no question," Davis said. "The $24 million is not just up for grabs for the federal government to take back. … Just because you heard $24 million does not mean in any way, shape or form that that funding will be taken away from the town of Hartford for any decision we make going forward."
Julio Thompson, head of the civil rights division at the Vermont Attorney General's Office, said Wednesday that the executive government can only withhold funding when Congress has given it the explicit discretion to do so. Federal funding for town highways, for instance, likely wouldn't be at risk even if Hartford adopts an ordinance that violates federal immigration law.
"The question would be whether Congress has, under its spending power, conditioned federal highway grants to other laws," Thompson said. "To my knowledge, they haven’t done that with respect to immigration."
But Thompson said the question may be moot anyway, since state law prohibits municipalities from adopting policies that conflict with federal immigration law. Vermont's Section 2366 of Title 20, passed in 2017, says that: "To the extent any State or local law enforcement policy or practice conflicts with the lawful requirements" of federal immigration law, "that policy or practice is, to the extent of the conflict, abolished."
And Thompson, who has not read the proposed Hartford ordinance, said that if a policy violates federal law, then it simply does not exist.
"If they're passing something that state law says is abolished then I don’t know that it has an effect," Thompson said.
Other town residents said they're disturbed that the selectboard is pursuing changes to local police policy at all.
"From the very beginning of the tenure of this board, I feel that there has been an attempt for you to push a social agenda, in large part to the leftward leaning majority of the current board," Hartford resident Lannie Collins said Tuesday.
Collins said the push for the ordinance reads like an indictment of the police force to many town residents. And he said Selectboard Chairman Simon Dennis has lost his credibility as an elected official by becoming a vocal proponent of the Welcoming City Ordinance.
"I have a very difficult time, sir, understanding … how you can remain neutral on this topic or any other topic that comes before this board," said Collins, who asked for Dennis' resignation. "What I believe is that you’re actively trying to protect these illegal aliens by attempting to shield them and their supporters from government officials attempting to carry out their assigned duties."
Dennis said he's been forthcoming about his personal feelings on the matter.
"I think I've been fairly transparent about that from the beginning with regards to my own personal preferences with regard to that issue," Dennis said. "And I have done my best to prevent that from influencing the way that I have navigated the process of the town's decision. I have not always succeeded in that regard."
Selectboard member Kim Souza said the push for the ordinance does not reflect dissatisfaction with or distrust of local police.
"We have a police force that we do trust and we feel very confident with," Souza said. "But it doesn’t need to be a blind loyalty. It can be a transparent loyalty that we can all feel good about together."
Selectboard members say they plan to hold numerous public hearings in advance of Town Meeting Day to educate residents about the proposed ordinance.
Update 9/4/2019 3:16 p.m. This story was updated with more comment from Tuesday, as well as from Thompson.