Traffic Stop Of Migrant Workers Raises Questions About Policing Policy

Dec 15, 2017
Originally published on December 15, 2017 9:53 am

A Franklin County, Vermont sheriff's officer called for the U.S. Border Patrol after he pulled over two Mexican farmworkers for a traffic violation last August. 

The two farmworkers are now in custody and awaiting deportation. A body cam video of the incident is fueling debate over Vermont’s fair and impartial policing policy.

Law enforcement and advocacy groups have worked for months on a new policy. The final version will likely be approved this week, and it will include guidelines on cooperation between state and federal agencies on immigration enforcement.

Immigrant advocates cite the video as evidence the policy needs strengthening; they’re also concerned that draft revisions could make it less likely that immigrants will seek out police in emergencies.

A top law enforcement official says those fears are unfounded.

The sheriff’s officer started following the 2001 Dodge pickup after he noticed the license plates belonged to a car and not a truck. When he pulled the vehicle over near Enosburg Falls, the officer couldn’t communicate with the Spanish-speaking driver.

A woman on the scene interprets. A body cam video captured the scene.

“He don’t have driver license,” the woman says. “All he has is this title.”

On his radio, the local officer asks for a “Romeo unit” — referring to a U.S. Border Patrol station in nearby Richford. Another sheriff’s officer replies that he’s two and a half miles away. "10-4," says the officer on the scene. “Still send Romeo unit,” he tells the dispatcher.

Soon, the Border Patrol arrives, and a federal agent named Steve asks to question the two farmworkers.

“You good with me talking with him?” the agent asks. "I’m just going to ask what he is. He’s going to say they’re permanent residents; I doubt it.”

The local officer starts to write up the traffic tickets. And then, he lets the feds take over.

“Well, after I give him this ticket, I’m done with him, unless you guys want me to stick around,” he tells the federal agent. “Want me to stick around a little bit, help you guys out?”

On the video, the federal agent can be heard referring to some of the immigrants as "wet" — an apparent reference to the pejorative slur, "wetback." 

For Will Lambek of the advocacy group Migrant Justice, what happened next is deeply disturbing. The two men — a father and son — are taken into federal custody. Lambek says they will soon be deported.

“Our law enforcement agents that are working on Vermont tax dollars are helping to deport our immigrant neighbors,” he says. “It doesn’t make any sense at all.”

Migrant Justice and the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union got the video under the state’s access to public records law. Both organizations are concerned that revisions to the state’s fair and impartial policing policy will make the Franklin County scenario — in which a person’s immigration status was given to federal agents — more common in Vermont.

“Under the policy that was approved and passed last year, that should not be shared. Under the version that’s currently being contemplated, that would be shared,” Lamkel says.

State Police Major Ingrid Jonas could not disagree more.

“There is no different in terms of protections,” says Jonas, the support services commander at the Vermont State Police, and leader of the agency’s work on fair and impartial policing. “We are not interested in having there be losses of protection.”

Jonas says she’s only now become aware of the Franklin County video and hasn’t seen it. She says the incident needs to be investigated, but her initial impression of how the stop unfolded does not square with existing policy or the latest revised version.  

“So I don’t see where that example is a good example of anything that wouldn’t have been covered in basic, proper policing practices 101."

Jonas says the revised policy is being crafted at the request of the Legislature, and provides clarity for law enforcement to better carry out their jobs.  

But she does point out that anything the state issues cannot conflict with federal law. The policy allows, but does not mandate, information sharing on immigration status between local cops and the feds.

And the latest draft of the policy says local police should have "no obligation" to share immigration status unless it's needed to protect public safety.

The Criminal Justice Training Council is scheduled to take up the latest draft at a meeting Tuesday, Dec. 12.

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