In the chaotic din of Washington politics, there’s no greater dissonance between what’s on paper and what’s on the ground than on issues of immigration-law enforcement. Last week, Senator Pat Toomey tried to introduce sweeping legislation to “ban” federal funding for “sanctuary cities,” or cities that have explicitly restricted local police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. Though the bill was blocked from the floor by Senate Democrats, community activists still feel the violent sentiment behind the rhetoric in Congress reverberating in their workplaces and neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, the Democratic establishment has taken a more passive-aggressive approach. The new Democratic Party platform offers bullet points on promoting more “humane” treatment of immigrants. The White House claims Homeland Security will “prioritize enforcement” to target real security threats—“felons, not families,” as Obama put it. Yet in the past few months, ICE has ramped up deportation drives that terrorize and split refugee families and communities.
In reality, the only thing consistent about immigration-law enforcement is that it has been consistently arbitrary. Advocacy groups have learned by now that they can rely on officialdom to recognize their rights, so they’re pressing for local resistance.
In Vermont, migrant farmworkers with the Burlington-based advocacy group Migrant Justice have tried to get one step ahead of ICE’s dragnets by campaigning for a statewide policy of police accountability. Last month, the group finalized a policy framework based on 2014 legislation aimed at ensuring “fair and impartial policing” and clarifying that agents “may inquire about immigration status only when it is necessary to the ongoing investigation of a criminal offense.” Not all the provisions are binding, but the framework sets firm anti-discrimination guidelines and curtails practices like arbitrarily detention after a traffic stop, or invasive “show me your papers” checks.
The framework does, however, offer police a loophole for “voluntary” arrangements with ICE to hold an already-detained immigrant en route to federal custody to face deportation proceedings. (Currently, under Homeland Security’s so-called Priority Enforcement Program, ICE may request local police assistance when it can identify a certain “enforcement priority” such as a criminal investigation.)
While still imperfect, the policies provide legal guidance to ensure that ICE cannot unilaterally turn any precinct into a local Homeland Security outpost. Migrant Justice organizer Will Lambek tells The Nation that, in communities that have seen many immigrants, including labor activists, terrorized by ICE raids, in an immigrants’ encounter with police, “it’s completely life altering, whether…you get to go through the Vermont justice system, like your neighbor would, or whether you’re going to get detained, deported, and separated from your family and your means of making a living.”