Immigration issue splits House GOP caucus

MONTPELIER — The Vermont House advanced legislation aimed at preventing local law enforcement from participating in federal immigration enforcement in a vote that split the Republican caucus with half going against a popular governor from their own party.

The bill, S.79, has been pushed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott, Democratic Attorney General T.J. Donovan and a tripartisan group of lawmakers in response to executive orders signed by President Donald Trump dealing with immigration and border security. It received preliminary approval in the House Tuesday on a 110-24 vote, with 24 Republicans voting against it. The bill originated in the Senate where it passed 30-0 and was unchanged by the House Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Chip Conquest

Rep. Chip Conquest

Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Newfane, the vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told his colleagues the legislation is “not about immigration” at the state level. Instead, it is about the state’s “unwillingness to discriminate against anyone.”

“Immigration law is federal civil law that states have no authority to change. This bill is about the people of Vermont,” he said.

The bill seeks to prevent local, county and state law enforcement from participating in enforcement of federal immigration law. One of the president’s executive orders calls for agreements with such law enforcement agencies to help the federal government. The bill grants the governor sole authority, in consultation with the state attorney general, to approve such agreements.

Also, it seeks to prevent law enforcement agencies in Vermont from sharing personally identifiable information about people, such as immigration status, religion and sexual orientation with federal authorities for the purposes of creating a registry. Trump, during the presidential campaign, advocated for a registry of Muslims.

“For those that think this may be unnecessary … I will just remind that we can look back on our history not that long ago to find a registry created by the government of Japanese Americans,” Conquest said.

Rep. Ron Hubert, R-Milton, peppered Conquest with questions about the bill. He pointed to ways the state works with federal authorities along the border with Canada for routine policing activity seeking information about how police agencies in northern communities would be impacted.

“Your committee has no idea how it will affect the mutual aid agreement with the people who protect our borders for the federal government and the local police?” he asked. “Is your committee aware that a lot of times the first responders to domestic assaults, armed robberies and murders are border patrol officers?”

Rep. Ron Hubert

Rep. Ron Hubert

Conquest sought to assure Hubert that cooperation between federal authorities and local police departments would not be impacted by the bill.

“I can say … that very intentionally, this bill does not prohibit any sort of cooperation between those two entities. This doesn’t address anything about crime. This really just says that we’re not going to be collecting or distributing information solely for the purposes of a registry,” Conquest said. “I think we heard about and were careful to try and not interfere in any way on issues of how we deal with crime.”

Conquest said law enforcement officers in Vermont, under federal law, can not be barred from sharing with federal law enforcement authorities if they know someone is in the country illegally.

“If they are in possession of that information, we can not prohibit them from passing that information on if they choose,” he said.

Despite Conquest’s efforts, Hubert remained unconvinced and voted against the measure.

“This bill is absolutely nothing more than a problem looking for a solution. We’re trying to create a problem before we even know if one exists,” he said.

Rep. Job Tate, R-Mendon, said he has “no interest in there being a registry on religion or gender or sexual orientation or otherwise.” But he said he opposed the legislation because it does not offer any definition of a registry.

“We all know there’s a sex offender registry, and we want that, obviously, but under this bill would the term registry apply to anything that’s written down on paper?” he said.

He noted that a registry based on certain personal information would be inappropriate, but suggested that other information should be shared with the federal government.

“ It’s not illegal in this country to be a Christian or a Muslim. It’s not illegal to be a homosexual. It is illegal to be in the country without permission,” Tate said.

Rep. Barbara Rachelson, D-Burlington, a member of the Judiciary Committee, defended the bill, saying it will not prohibit the enforcement of immigration laws in Vermont or the federal government in any way.

“It sounds like this bill is widely misunderstood as to what it does or does not do. Immigration is not a state function,” she said. “Immigration enforcement is a federal function. It’s always been a federal function, and nothing in this bill would prevent the federal government from doing it’s job.”

Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, raised the state’s past involvement in the eugenics movement to emphasize why she supports the bill. She said personal characteristics, national origin and even disabilities “were used for discrimination and even forced sterilization.”

“I think sometimes we do need to look at our history and recognize our experiences in the past and what that tells us about the risks and the paths that we choose to go down,” she said.

Republican Rep. Kurt Wright of Burlington said he favored the bill, but urged his colleagues to also consider the security needs of the state and country.

“I am going to support this as what I view as a reasonable response. Any kind of a religious registry, a Muslim ban, is clearly wrong,” he said. “We also need to recognize that we need a valid response to security in this country.”

Wright cautioned as well against applying labels to half of the House Republican caucus who voted against the bill.

“That does not mean that anyone who has concerns about security is a bigot, is a racist, is a xenophobe,” Wright said.

Rebecca Kelley, the governor’s spokeswoman, praised the House action Tuesday.

“The administration is pleased to see this legislation continue to move forward. S.79 is important to ensuring we defend individual rights and protect the constitutional rights of citizens and the state, while keeping the state of Vermont in full compliance with federal law,” she said.

The bill is expected to pass a final vote Wednesday and head to Scott’s desk to be signed into law.

neal.goswami@rutlandherald.com

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