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Immigration debate fills Hartford Town Hall

  • Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten gives his assessment of the proposed Fair and Impartial Policing Policy to an overflow crowd during the Hartford Selectboard meeting in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Joe Trottier, center, and other Hartford-area residents listen during a public comment period on a proposed Fair and Impartial Policing policy at the Hartford Selectboard meeting as Martin Camber, of Hartford, left, refers to some in attendance as "illegals" in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, July 17, 2019. About 150 people filled the board chambers, an overflow room and the hallway at the town hall to hear Police Chief Phil Kasten speak about the policy and to take part in the debate. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Scott Willey, of White River Junction, standing, demands that Hartford Selectboard Chair Simon Dennis, second from right, end the board meeting and reschedule discussion of the proposed Fair and Impartial Policing policy in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Willey voiced concern that people in an overflow room could not see or hear the proceedings and that Hartford residents would not have an opportunity to speak. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Martin Camber, of Hartford, called out for a point of order, asking, "where is the speaker from?" as Asmaelh Elhui, of Hartford, introduced herself during public comment on the town's proposed Fair and Impartial Policing policy in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, July 17, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten reacts after hearing a speaker during public comment on the proposed Fair and Impartial Policing policy at a meeting of the Hartford Selectboard in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 17, 2019

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The national debate on immigration spilled into Hartford Town Hall this week as about 150 people packed a Selectboard meeting and debated — sometimes in heated terms — changes that immigrant rights advocates want made to the town’s existing Fair and Impartial Policing policy, including restricting communication with federal authorities about a person’s immigration status.

Four Hartford residents rushed the podium to speak at the outset of a public comment period Tuesday evening, and this third public meeting on the topic lasted nearly six hours and at times saw outbursts from both supporters and opponents.

“Let’s not call them ‘undocumented.’ They are illegal,” Hartford resident Tim Thibodeau said of immigrants who are in the United States without a proper visa or other documentation.

“Are you going to allow slurs in your room?” a woman shouted, prompting Hartford Selectboard Chairman Simon Dennis to tell the audience — including people who spilled into an overflow room and the hallway — to use the term undocumented.

That didn’t stop the next Hartford resident who spoke in opposition to policy changes from reverting to the other term.

“I don’t believe in disguising things like this with terms like undocumented. … These people are illegal. They are criminals,” said Hartford resident Martin Camber, who said he doesn’t want to see undocumented immigrants harmed but wants all people to find a path to citizenship through “legal” channels. “If they are illegal, we need to do something about it. You need to support the laws that are on the books.”

“Proceed with some delicacy,” Dennis again reminded the group. “I don’t want to keep revisiting this.”

Tuesday night’s conversation about the Fair and Impartial Policing policy amendments drafted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont and Migrant Justice, a Burlington-based organization pushing for economic justice and human rights, marked the first time residents provided the Selectboard with in-person feedback opposing any changes.

The meeting, which was plagued with technical difficulties, also marked the first time the board heard in person on the topic from Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten, who previously said the policy amendments, one of which would forbid town police from sharing information with federal authorities about a person’s immigration status unless it was part of an ongoing felony investigation, go too far.

But he didn’t provide any alternatives on Tuesday night, which Selectboard member Alan Johnson said was frustrating. The Selectboard is working on a tight timeline to adopt amendments to the policy to provide greater protections for undocumented immigrants in the community, and Johnson said he had hoped for a draft document to mull over.

Instead, Kasten, who spoke before the public comment period, told those in attendance that he is committed to “advancing the cause of fairness and equity in all of our practices,” but that the proposed amendments violate federal law pertaining to communication between government agencies and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Federal law states that no government agency, including cities and towns, can prohibit communication to the Immigration and Naturalization Service regarding a person’s citizenship or immigration status. Some courts in ruling on sanctuary city protests against the Trump administration have found it unconstitutional. However, the law has not been struck down nationally.

Hartford police don’t ask individuals about their immigration status, Kasten said, and current policy states that it is not the business of municipal police agencies to enforce immigration laws. But forbidding communication with federal authorities in most instances could hurt investigations, he said.

“Policing here is a collaborative responsibility. We cannot do it without our partners,” said Kasten, adding that those range from Vermont State Police to the Department of Homeland Security.

So, a working group — which includes Kasten, Dennis, Selectman Jameson Davis, Town Manager Brannon Godfrey and Allene Swienckowski of the Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion — is drafting proposed amendments to the existing Fair and Impartial Policing policy that would clarify when Hartford police could communicate with federal officials about a person’s immigration status, in hopes of striking a compromise with supporters.

The three areas the working group is focused on involve such issues as civil immigration law and traffic stops; interaction with victims and witnesses; and collaboration with federal immigration officers.

The working group is slated to meet on Thursday and next week to discuss proposed changes, with the hope that the Selectboard might adopt a version of amendments on July 30.

Immigrant rights supporters said they plan to hold the Selectboard to that deadline. Many said the board already has taken too long to adopt the protections, which they first discussed in early June.

Ashley Andreas, a White River Junction resident who was a delegate for Bernie Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, said she is frustrated by what she called a “lack of transparency” and criticized the process the town has followed, which she said “has done nothing but expose people in this room to … bigotry,” among other things.

At the start of the public comment period on Tuesday night, the Selectboard asked that Hartford residents be afforded the chance to speak first. Several people who oppose changes to the existing Hartford policy pressed for each speaker to identify what town they live in before speaking, and many kept on with that by asking “questions about residency,” Andreas said.

“That is so inappropriate for a town hall meeting. No matter what the topic, for residents to be acting like ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials),” she said. “This would not have happened had the board and the (police) department come to a resolution in a faster and more productive timeframe.”

“(I have) never experienced discrimination here. Tonight is something different,” said Arviso Alvord, a Dartmouth College student who grew up in Enfield. “I have been asked where I am from … been pointed at … called an illegal.”

At least a half-dozen supporters read statements from people who they said didn’t feel safe coming in person to the meeting. ​​​​​​

“That in and of itself is a shame,” said Polimana Joshevama, a Dartmouth student who said she lives on “unceded Abenaki territory.”

Supporters first urged the Selectboard to adopt amendments to the policy on June 4, and although several board members said they supported doing so, the board delayed formal action until Kasten could weigh in, among other reasons. (A Migrant Justice organizer said he first had communications with town officials in December.)

The board revisited the topic on June 18, but decided at that meeting to put off until this month a decision on proposed changes in part because of unresolved legal questions. The full board at that time still hadn’t heard from the chief because of scheduling conflicts.

In a surprise turn at the end of Tuesday’s meeting, a longtime Hartford resident who had spoken earlier in opposition to the policy changes offered an apology.

Joe Trottier, an Air Force veteran who grew up in Wilder and is a former chairman of the Hartford Republican Committee, was one of the first to speak, and like Thibodeau and Camber, had used the term “illegals” despite being asked not to.

“If we are allowing illegals … I’m sorry if you don’t like the terminology … (but) they are not upholding the law. They are not following the law,” Trottier had said, adding that he has “no problems” with “legal immigrants” and said he doesn’t feel Hartford has a problem with racism.

After 11 p.m., about four hours later, Trottier returned to the podium to walk back some of his initial remarks, saying he was a “committed Christian” with a diverse family.

“I sincerely apologize for using the word ‘illegal.’ It is the vernacular I grew up with,” Trottier said.

“This meeting has been very informative to me,” he said. “I didn’t fully understand your position. I understand now. So thank you, and I apologize.”

Also near the end of the meeting, Alvord led a group of about two dozen people in song, harmonizing Would You Harbor Me by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

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

Correction

Arviso Alvord grew up in Enfield. An earlier version of this story misidentified the town where she grew up.