New twist in Hartford immigration debate

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/22/2019 10:10:44 PM

HARTFORD — Town officials have decided to try to protect undocumented immigrants from being turned over to federal immigration authorities through an ordinance, rather than amending the existing Fair and Impartial Policing policy that guides Hartford police officers.

Immigrant rights advocates have proposed changing Hartford’s existing policy to restrict town police officers’ communication with federal authorities about a person’s immigration status, but federal law, despite a court ruling in at least one jurisdiction, prohibits any government agency, including cities and towns, from barring communication to the Immigration and Naturalization Service regarding a person’s citizenship or immigration status.

The policy change has been the subject of three intense Selectboard meetings, including one last week that ran for almost six hours. Most of the testimony from residents to the board has been in favor of the policy change, but some residents have also raised concerns about any amendments.

A working group of top town and school officials that met on Thursday unanimously agreed that passage of an ordinance would be a “stronger, less legally problematic, and less controversial path forward” toward accomplishing the same goal, according to a letter signed by Selectboard Chairman Simon Dennis, Selectman Jameson Davis, School Board Chairman Kevin Christie, Town Manager Brannon Godfrey and Police Chief Phil Kasten, who has previously made clear that his officers do not ask for an individual’s immigration status nor call federal officials in routine cases where they discover an immigrant is undocumented.

Dennis said changing a policing policy might have been “overreach” by the Selectboard and also noted that it would be difficult to enforce, given the federal prohibition currently in place. An ordinance, however, might be more effective, they said.

“This is a moment in which the Selectboard is defining what kind of a town we want to be. It’s not like getting into the minutiae of what steps a police officer needs to do. You can see that can be problematic,” Dennis said on Monday.

The joint letter said the working group will present a “Welcoming Hartford” ordinance at the Selectboard meeting next Tuesday (July 30). Dennis said the ordinance is still being drafted, but Town Manager Brannon Godfrey said one potential model is a “Welcoming City Ordinance” adopted by the city of Chicago.

That Chicago ordinance reads, in part, “No agent or agency shall request information about or otherwise investigate or assist in the investigation of the citizenship or immigration status of any person unless such inquiry or investigation is required by Illinois State Statute, federal regulation, or court decision. Notwithstanding this provision, the Corporation Counsel may investigate and inquire about immigration status when relevant to potential or actual litigation or an administrative proceeding in which the City is or may be a party.”

“We’re looking for a way to get to where we want to be without requiring our police officers to be in violation of federal law, and one of the things we kept running into is we are trying to select policy at the Selectboard level for what is ultimately a police policy and procedure,” Godfrey said.

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.

“When addressing a legal matter, this is the appropriate process for the town to do so,” Kasten, the police chief, said of a prospective ordinance. “It gives the public the opportunity to weigh in on what is a change in the way business is completed, and I support that process.”

He also pointed to a Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council model fair and impartial policing policy that reads, in part, that police “will not inquire of a person about that person’s immigration status unless it is necessary to the ongoing investigation of a criminal offense. Agency members shall not use individual personal characteristics to ask about or investigate immigration status.” It also acknowledges the federal laws currently in place.

An email sent to Davis, who is the Selectboard liaison to the Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion, seeking comment on Monday was not returned by deadline.

But representatives of two groups who have been pushing for the change said they would be OK with the ordinance route for Hartford.

“We all believe that an ordinance is a lot more stable, and it’s something that we want,” said Ramon Aguinaldo of Rise! Upper Valley.

And Will Lambek of the Burlington-based Migrant Justice group, said “whether it’s achieved through an ordinance or a policy, the important thing is to ensure that the town of Hartford fully protects the rights of immigrants working, living or traveling through town.”

The ordinance will be discussed at the Selectboard meeting on Tuesday, July 30, at 6 p.m. at the Hartford High School auditorium.

John P. Gregg can be reached at

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