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Column: Hartford must affirm the value of all its residents

For the Valley News
Published: 6/29/2019 10:20:05 PM
Modified: 6/29/2019 10:20:03 PM


I am a Hartford resident and have been since 1998. I was the special education administrator for the Hartford School District from 1987 until I retired in 2006. My son graduated from Hartford High School and my husband worked for the district as an educator and program director 30 years. For me, this has been a wonderful town in which to live and work.

I am also an immigrant.

I have been a U.S. citizen for 30 years. In 1971, I settled in the Upper Valley with an extension of a student visa. Later, I received permanent residency status from what was then known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and citizenship in about 1989. I have no recollection of ever being asked about my citizenship except when leaving or entering the country, and once at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement checkpoint on Interstate 89 several years ago. Even when I received speeding tickets, the question of citizenship has, in my memory, never been raised.

This is no accident; I believe that privilege was simply because I am white, and therefore look like 94.5% of Vermont residents. I came from a largely English-speaking country, Canada, and therefore talked like most Vermonters and U.S. citizens. I belonged.

The Hartford Selectboard met on June 4 and focused on taking public comment on amending its existing Fair and Impartial Policing policy. Testimony was taken from many black, brown and white residents from many Upper Valley towns. The following week, I attended a “Community Forum for a Hate Free Vermont” in Hartford about the impact of race in Vermont communities, and I was reminded yet again that racial discrimination is a forceful and profoundly negative influence in Upper Valley towns.

I had seen this earlier in my career in students who were brown or black — it was not easy going for them. They were subject to prejudice and racism. This is not to suggest there weren’t many supportive and caring students and teachers. So often these students were isolated — there was not a critical mass of other students who were brown or black who could support them with deep understanding in our dominantly white and relatively rural communities.

Given pressure from the current U.S. administration on local law enforcement to assist in identifying those who are in this country illegally, our police are put in a difficult position.

Separating families and incarcerating children in inhumane conditions convinces me that we must resist efforts to pressure our community police to act as an arm of the federal government, whose actions demonstrate that honoring the humanity of each individual in custody is not a priority. Incarcerating children is itself a crime against the humanity of each of these children, who have broken no laws and committed no wrongdoing. Aren’t their parents seeking the same refuge and asylum from brutal governments and poverty as did many of our forefathers and foremothers?

The health effects, including the mental health cost of such family separation and incarceration, are profound and long-lasting. As a special education administrator, I worked diligently and collaboratively with the Hartford School District staff and community and state agencies to mitigate the effects of childhood trauma through specialized programs, support for parents, and educational and mental health programs. As executive director of the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators between 2012 and 2017, I saw many of my colleagues do the same for students and families.

And now I watch as our own federal government traumatizes children and families. These experiences are enormously challenging to address and mitigate. Significant life-long health and mental health effects are now well established in the research literature.

We all know that just because something is legal does not necessarily mean it is just, moral or humane, as our own history tells us again and again. Slavery, denying women the right to vote and interning Japanese citizens during World War II are just three examples where laws were both unjust and inhumane.

Each of these remains a shameful legacy from which we are still recovering. Legal is not enough.

I strongly support the proposed amendments to the town’s Fair and Impartial Policing policy, which support our local police in keeping the needs of our residents first and foremost, and I resist strongly the intrusion of federal immigration officials into the local community policing role. The policy must not discourage, through fear of deportation, the reporting of domestic assault or other crimes, or discourage immigrants from serving as a witnesses to a crime.

Now is a pivotal time in the town of Hartford when we have the opportunity to affirm the value of all our residents.

Jo-Anne Unruh lives in Hartford. This piece was adapted from comments she made before the Hartford Selectboard.

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