The town of Hartford has become a testing ground of sorts for a new state law that gives municipalities broad authority to insulate undocumented residents from federal immigration authorities.
Last Tuesday, about 200 people packed into the Hartford High School auditorium for the latest meeting on a proposed ordinance that would limit communication between town police and federal immigration authorities.
The so-called "Welcoming City Ordinance" represents Hartford’s attempt to protect undocumented immigrants from getting arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Border Patrol agents. It tries to accomplish that task by restricting certain communication between local police officers and federal immigration authorities.
Vermont's Republican governor has already signed legislation that prohibits state and local police from actively aiding in federal immigration sweeps, and a statewide fair and impartial policing policy restricts local police from sharing certain kinds of information with ICE and border patrol agents.
But some Hartford residents, like Asma Elhuni, said those protections don't go far enough.
"To the selectboard, we appeal to you today to do the right thing and put our protection as a priority over those who hold positions ... that give them authority to abuse others if they so choose," Elhuni said at the meeting last week.
Elhuni, an immigrant from Libya, is part of a local coalition that wants to prohibit Hartford police from disclosing information about a person's immigration or citizenship status to federal authorities.
It's a legal avenue that some selectboard members are wary of going down. At last week's meeting, Selectman Jameson Davis tried to explain why:
"So 1373 — OK, that's a U.S. code which addresses the exchange of information regarding citizenship status among federal, state and local government entities," Davis said.
Under federal code 1373, it's illegal for state and local agencies to prohibit employees from sharing information about a person's immigration or citizenship status with the federal government. Hartford selectboard members, however, say they've found a way to bolster protections for undocumented immigrants without running afoul of federal law.
The proposed ordinance would keep Hartford in compliance with 1373, by allowing police to share information about a person's immigration status — but the ordinance would simultaneously prohibit those same police officers from asking a person about their immigration status.
"The net effect is, that which you can share, you can't learn and don't know about, and that which you cannot share, you can learn and can know about," said Selectboard Chairman Simon Dennis. "This is a kind of a two-door approach to providing the protections while at the same time not acting in violation of 1373."
However Dennis' assurances did little to appease the advocates for immigrants who turned out for last week's meeting.
Makale Camara, a Hartford resident, said they have little faith that police will refrain from asking people of color about their immigration status. In order to protect undocumented immigrants, Camara said, town officials need to restrict all communication between local police and ICE, even if it means flouting federal law.
"You have no idea what it means to be afraid to leave your house. You clearly show that. Where is your courage?" Camara said to the selectboard. "You might as well throw this ordinance in the trash with all the other brown and black people that you are going to throw away by allowing information sharing between the ICE and police."
Thanks to a new law passed by state lawmakers and approved by Gov. Phil Scott earlier this year, town officials are free to approve local law enforcement policies that offer more protections for undocumented immigrants than the state’s model fair and impartial policing policy allows for.
Colburn said she helped lead the push for the bill because she doesn’t think Vermont's Vermont's model policy goes far enough.
"I … think we're in a time of significant moral crisis in our country," Colburn said. "And it's incumbent on all of us as individuals, as towns, as states, as communities, to stand up and say: 'This is just not okay.'"
Migrant Justice, an organization that advocates for farmworkers in Vermont, hopes the new law will become a springboard for more protective policing policies across the state. The organization’s spokesperson, Will Lambek, said the law "presents cities and towns in Vermont with an incredible opportunity and with a stark choice."
"They can continue with business as usual, which means that Vermont law enforcement officials are complicit in the immigration detention and deportation of immigrants in our state," Lambek said, "or they can implement sound public policy that protects the safety of immigrant communities and that upholds the principles of equal treatment before the law."
Last year — before the new state law was in effect — the city of Winooski passed a fair and impartial policing policy that prohibits officers from sharing with federal authorities information about a person's immigration status.
It’s a provision that directly flouts federal law, and many Hartford residents want their town to follow suit.
But Hartford Selectboard Chairman Simon Dennis said passing an ordinance that violates federal law might not deliver the protections that town officials are trying to create.
"So if we have an ordinance which is itself a violation a federal law, then it ties our hands when it comes time to enforce that," Dennis said in an interview last week. "So for instance, you can imagine that if somebody doesn't follow it, then there's a disciplinary procedure ultimately leading to, let's imagine, termination — then we're subject to a wrongful termination lawsuit. So that's a vulnerability of this approach."
Hartford's town attorney also noted that other state laws essentially forbid municipalities from adopting fair and impartial policies policies that violate 1373. Those laws say that if a portion of a policy violates "the lawful requirements" of 1373, then those portions of the policy are "abolished." The town attorney said even if Hartford passes a municipal ordinance prohibiting its police department from sharing information with federal authorities about immigration or citizenship status, then, as a matter of state law, that part of the ordinance legally wouldn't exist.
Dennis also said the town is facing pushback against the proposed ordinance from inside town government.
"There’s some very key stakeholders in this process with whom we do not have the support, and that also lends to enforceability,” Dennis said.
When asked if members of the Hartford Police Department or other town employees had threatened to quit if the selectboard adopts the measure, or refuse to abide by the Welcoming City Ordinance, Dennis said: "I'm not at liberty to speak about that at this juncture."
Hartford Police Chief Phillip Kasten declined to be interviewed for this story.
Last week's meeting spotlighted the fault lines between advocates for immigrants and a selectboard that appears to share their concerns about federal immigration policies. It also revealed the wider chasm between people on opposite sides of President Donald Trump's immigration policies.
Hartford resident Martin Camber not only opposes the Welcoming City Ordinance, but he thinks local police should make it a policy to contact ICE when they come into contact with an undocumented immigrant.
"They broke the law to come here. … They're working illegally. They don't have a Social Security number, they don't have a license," Camber said at last week's meeting. (Editor's note: In Vermont, undocumented immigrants are eligible for driver's privilege cards.)
Camber's comments drew a swift and vocal reaction from advocates for immigrants, who began chanting: "Racist, go home."
Camber chastised the group for interrupting his speaking time. And then he concluded his allotted speaking time with a message for some of the immigrants in the audience that night:
"God bless President Trump. I hope he gets elected, and I'm sure he will," Camber said. "And if you're illegal, all go home. Back to the country you came from."
Hartford Selectboard Chairman Simon Dennis had seen this all coming. Earlier in the evening, he'd pleaded with the people who turned out for the meeting to have compassion for ideological differences, and to listen quietly, talk respectfully and come together as a community.
With order disintegrating, Dennis quieted the crowd and tried to intervene.
"This is a moment for us to consider here," Dennis said. "And it's really a deep question for us to ponder for a moment: Are we able to have this conversation or not?"
The Hartford selectboard decided to postpone its vote on the ordinance, and they'll meet next later this month. But the question Dennis raised is one that other Vermont towns may soon have to grapple with as well.
Update 8:39 a.m. 8/6/19 A previous version of this post used an incorrect pronoun when referring to Camara. The post has been updated.
Update 10:44 a.m. 8/9/19 A previous version of the this story incorrectly said that state law allows Vermont municipalities to adopt law enforcement policies that violate federal law