MONTPELIER — Vermont’s capital is on a list of cities whose policies violate federal immigration law, according to a document released last week by the Department of Homeland Security.
Montpelier made the list because authorities “will not hold an individual based solely on an ICE detainer,” the DHS document states. The list is important because U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that he is ready to punish sanctuary cities by denying them $4 billion in federal grants this year alone.
President Donald Trump ordered DHS to release weekly reports listing communities that are violating federal law. Last week’s list includes 118 jurisdictions that thwart federal immigration agents.
Montpelier Mayor John Hollar told Watchdog that his legal advisors say the city is not violating federal immigration policy.
“Our policies in Montpelier are similar to those in other communities throughout Vermont that are consistent with guidance that we’ve received from the [state] attorney general’s office,” Hollar said. “We don’t think there’s any violation of federal law in the policies that we’ve adopted here.”
The DHS listing puts local police in a bind. Aiding and abetting illegal immigrants is a felony according to the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act. However, many sanctuary communities across the country instruct police not to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers — federal requests to local jurisdictions to hold undocumented immigrants until ICE agents arrive in person.
Hollar said he is sticking by the advice of his advisors.
“My understanding is that these are civil detainers, and based on my conversation with the attorney general, we believe that we are not able to detain individuals based on charges without probable cause, and that seems to be what the expectation is.
“I’ve got to rely on guidance from both our police chief as well as our [state] attorney general, and my view is that we are entirely consistent with both federal law and also the Constitution,” Hollar said.
Jonathan Hanen, an expert with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said Montpelier police are faced with a dilemma due to the city’s policy.
“It’s unfair for law enforcement because it’s a no-win situation,” Hanen said. “[In] most oaths that I’ve seen law enforcement take, it’s not just swearing to uphold the local law of this town or that town, they are also upholding the federal law, too. So, they know that they are violating federal law.”
The Obama administration weakened the 287 (g) program that allows local officers to temporarily achieve ICE agent status while enforcing a detainer. However, that program has returned back to its original status under the new Trump administration.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also reported last week that local authorities in sanctuary communities released more than 200 illegal aliens from prisons in a single week in defiance of detainment orders.
Such communities risk losing federal funding, such as money from Administration of Justice grants, Hanen said.
“The counties will often get that money and then they will spend it on something else. Once that’s taken away, oftentimes it’s kind of a domino effect,” he said.
Sanctuary cities face another threat for lawless activities: the U.S. attorney general can sue.
“It is not acceptable for jurisdictions to refuse to cooperate with federal law enforcement by releasing criminal aliens back into our communities when our law required them to be deported,” Sessions said last week.
Hollar says he’s not sure what the plan is to remedy this situation with DHS. “We haven’t had any opportunity to talk yet about what the strategy is going to be in response to this, but we think it’s unfounded and that there’s no basis for it,” he said.
Hanen says whatever cities decide, the stakes are high. “It’s really about the front line between the sovereignty of the states and the sovereignty of the federal government,” he said.
Michael Bielawski is a freelance reporter for Vermont Watchdog. Contact him at [email protected]