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Hartford welcoming ordinance greeted with heated hearing

  • A group of pro-immigration supporters line the front row seats in the Hartford High School auditorium to hear debate on the town's proposed "Welcoming Hartford" ordinance in White River Junction on Tuesday, July 30, 2019. (Rick Russell photograph)

  • Scott Holmes speaks to the media against the proposed "Welcoming Hartford" ordinance at Hartford High School, in White River Junction, on Tuesday, July 30,2019. (Rick Russell photograph)

  • Arviso Alvord at right, sings "We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest" duirng a break in a meeting to discuss the proposed "Welcoming Hartford" ordinance at Hartford High School, in White River, on Tuesday, July 30,2019. (Rick Russell photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 30, 2019

HARTFORD — Fiery rhetoric and accusations of racism percolated Tuesday night after town officials unveiled to the public a draft of the proposed “Welcoming Hartford Ordinance,” which would establish guidelines for when Hartford police and other town employees could communicate with federal authorities about a person’s citizenship or immigration status.

The meeting, held at the Hartford High School auditorium, turned combative at times, with conflict over recent changes to the ordinance rankling Selectboard members and with contentious rhetoric animating public comment. Selectboard Chairman Simon Dennis even threatened to adjourn the gathering, but a vote to do so failed and the hearing continued past 10 p.m.

The topic of how to best protect undocumented immigrants in town has been discussed at several Selectboard meetings since early June, but Tuesday’s meeting marked the first time the full board and the public has weighed in since a working group earlier this month switched gears and proposed an ordinance versus a policy change.

The first draft of the ordinance was included in the Selectboard meeting packet that was posted on the town’s website on July 26. But over the weekend a portion of the working group met and made amendments to that ordinance, which weren’t well-received by some members of the board, as well as immigrant rights supporters who attended Tuesday night’s meeting.

Among the changes were the addition of a “savings clause,” something Migrant Justice spokesman Will Lambek said before the meeting “undermines the integrity of the ordinance.”

The clause states: “The ordinance does not prohibit or restrict any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, federal immigration authorities, information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of an individual or exchange that information with any other federal, state or local government entity.”

Selectboard member Kim Souza made a motion during the meeting to revert to the original draft of the ordinance, the one without the savings clause and other modifications. The motion didn’t gain a second from the board, but it garnered a long and loud applause from supporters in the audience.

“I don’t think it is any improvement over the current Fair and Impartial Policing policy that we have,” Souza said of the modified ordinance.

Although Selectboard members started the meeting by discussing various pieces of the ordinance, including the modifications, ultimately it was the will of the board to stop going through the proposed ordinance with a fine-toothed comb and hear from the public. The board signaled it wouldn’t adopt an ordinance Tuesday night.

Supporters and opponents of the ordinance shouted out throughout the meeting, taking constant jabs at one another. Supporters chanted “breach in process” when the board talked about part of the working group meeting over the weekend to make changes. Opponents shouted, “Let the voters decide,” and, “Town Meeting.”

Resident Kale Camara was the first to speak when the floor was opened up and said they were “confused,” “shocked” and “disgusted” to find the added savings clause.

“That savings clause does nothing for immigrants in this area,” Camara said. “So, anyone could tell authorities someone’s citizenship status?”

Resident Martin Camber used the word “illegals” and other phrases that caused supporters to erupt in a chant of “Racist, go home!”

“I just don’t like the fact that you are breaking U.S. laws,” said Camber, who wore a black baseball cap with the writing “police” and “ICE” on it.

Dennis had to step in at this time and acknowledge that comments Camber made were “hurtful” and questioned whether attendees were able to “have this conversation or not.”

He then held a lengthy moment of silence. Shortly thereafter, the board voted against ending the meeting.

Hartford’s proposed five-page ordinance says that no town department shall request or disclose information regarding a person’s citizenship or immigration status, unless it is required to do so by state law, federal regulation, court decision or another legal process.

In addition, no Hartford police officer could arrest or detain a person solely on the belief that he or she is in the United States illegally, even if that person has an immigration warrant or detainer out; make arrests on suspicion of unlawful entry into the country; or assist federal immigration authorities with civil immigration enforcement, among many other restrictions in the proposed ordinance.

At the outset of the meeting, Selectboard member Jameson Davis said the Hartford Police Department could only share with federal immigration authorities information that it has. Because it is already the policy of the police department to not ask questions about a person’s immigration status, there is no information of that nature to share, he said.

However, one person in the audience shouted out that Hartford police do ask questions about a person’s immigration status.

The Hartford ordinance was drafted, in part, off a “Welcoming Cities Ordinance” recently passed in Chicago under the same premise, Dennis said previously said. Chicago’s ordinance does not have a savings clause.

The Selectboard and the public have been discussing for two months proposed amendments to the town’s existing Fair and Impartial Policing Policy at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont and Migrant Justice, a Burlington-based organization pushing for economic justice and human rights, who drafted the changes.

But in a letter to the community on July 23, the working group — comprising Dennis, Selectboard member Jameson Davis, Town Manager Brannon Godfrey, Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten and School Board Chairman Kevin Christie — said an ordinance would be “the most effective” and a “stronger, less legally problematic, and less controversial path forward.”

Dennis also previously said a policy change might be “overreach” by the board and may be difficult to enforce, given federal law prohibiting bans by local communities that want to restrict contact between local police and federal immigration officials.

On Tuesday night, Dennis said the ordinance, with the savings clause, puts the town “in a stronger position to be able to enforce the policy.”

While the Selectboard would be the body to adopt a municipal ordinance, Godfrey said it could subsequently be brought to a Town Meeting vote if 5% of voters signed a petition in opposition.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603- 727-3248.