Time to Act: Burlington Must End Collaboration Between Police and ICE

-By Betsy McGavisk and Ashley Smith (PJC Member)

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Ashley Smith, of Burlington, a socialist writer and activist who writes for various publications including Harpers, Truthout, Jacobin, and New Politics, and Betsy McGavisk, of Burlington, a community organizer at Rights and Democracy. 

The Trump administration’s all-out assault on immigrant rights continues unabated. In his latest outrage, Trump has deployed Customs and Border Protections’ (CBP) notorious BORTAC swat teams to sanctuary cities across the US to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the arrest, detention, and deportation of immigrants. Last week, activists in Burlington protested at our city council meeting to demand that our city no longer be complicit in this repressive regime.

Trump is doing all of this for cynical purposes; he hopes to deflect attention from his naked service to the rich in our country and relentless attacks on everyone else. The human cost of his scapegoating immigrants cannot be exaggerated; Physicians for Human Rights just released a study concluding that his policy of family separation and incarceration of parents and children in concentration camps constitutes torture.

Burlington and most other cities and towns in Vermont are complicit in this horrific attack on human rights. The Office of Homeland Security and ICE have offices in Williston; Border Patrol operates throughout the state; and the police collaborate with all of them in detaining and deporting immigrants. It is time for us to put a stop to this.  

Migrant Justice has launched a state-wide campaign that calls for cities and towns to pass resolutions to close loopholes in the state’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy (FIPP) to bar collaboration between police and immigration authorities. The Winooski City Council has already passed such a resolution, and now immigrant rights activists throughout the state are pushing for their municipalities to do the same.

In Burlington, No Más Polimigra BTV introduced a resolution into the City Council and expected it to be voted on February 18th. Council President Kurt Wright bumped our resolution from the agenda—during the very week Trump deployed BORTAC swat teams—claiming that it was not “time sensitive” and delaying the vote until March 9th

Undeterred by Wright’s obstructionism, nearly 150 immigrants and their allies rallied before the Council Meeting, marched into Contois Auditorium chanting “Vermont Will Fight for Immigrant Rights,” and testified during the public comment period, stressing that now is the time for Burlington to take a stand against Trump’s anti-immigrant witch hunt. Afterwards, we left chanting “We’ll Be Back on March 9th.”

In the run up to this pivotal vote, we’ve encountered two main objections to our resolution. First, some have expressed fear that Trump will use our resolution to withhold federal grants to the city. There is no reason for this concern.

The only grant that would be put in jeopardy is the Justice Assistance Grant (JAG). Burlington has not applied for that since 2017 and has no plans to do so now. Moreover, the last JAG funding of some $40,000 is tiny for a city with an annual budget of about $200 million and could be easily made up for by budget reallocation. But the pressing question everyone should ask is why would Burlington sell out immigrants for a few dollars?

Second, others, especially Burlington’s City Attorney Eileen Blackwood, have worried that the resolution will be deemed unconstitutional by the courts. This is without foundation. In fact, every time that Trump has sued cities and states for implementing similar policies, those jurisdictions have won against him in court. 

Instead of cowering in fear of the Trump administration, our political leaders should be standing up against it. They should be leading the charge, challenging Trump across the board. If they don’t, it is up to us to hold them accountable at the ballot box to replace them with leaders who will. 

Perhaps more worrisome than these objections, though, is a recent maneuver by the City Attorney. Blackwood—to whom we have reached out for months without getting a response—has just introduced an alternative FIPP to the police commission. 

The main problem with her proposal is the same as the state-wide FIPP; it essentially enshrines the very loopholes our resolution would close. These loopholes allow police to:

  • Report the immigration status of victims and witnesses of crimes to deportation agents;
  • Ask about a person’s immigration status on suspicion of having recently crossed the border;
  • Share confidential information with immigration agents on grounds of “public safety” or “law enforcement needs;”
  • Give deportation agents access to individuals in police custody, effectively turning local police stations into temporary holding cells for ICE and Border Patrol.

The alternative FIPP proposed by Blackwood leaves the door open for collaboration between the Burlington Police Department and federal immigration agents, thus continuing to put Burlington’s immigrant residents and visitors under threat of arrest, detention and deportation.

Councilors should not fall for this maneuver and accept the unjust status quo in our state. Instead, the majority of the Council, which is all on record as professing support for immigrant rights, should vote for our resolution, even if that means overriding the City Attorney’s recommendation.

Councilors are well within their rights to consider the risks raised by the City Attorney; however, their responsibility is ultimately to represent city residents by enacting public policy that represents the community’s values and protects the safety and security of all. They should fulfill that responsibility, follow the lead of Winooski—which has already taken a stand and faced no grave repercussions—and vote for our resolution without amendment. 

We call on unions and organizations to join close to 40 others in signing our letter to the City Council, lobby all the Councilors, and mobilize their members for our rally on March 9th. If Burlington votes for immigrant rights, we can set a precedent for all the other towns and cities in the state to do the same. 

Everyone in this moment of emergency will be judged by their constituents and history about where they stood—with or against the Trump administration’s war on immigrants.