Group wants city protection for illegal immigrants

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(Host) A citizen’s group wants Vermont’s largest city to offer some form of protection to illegal immigrants.

The group hopes that by declaring itself a “sanctuary city,” Burlington will send a message that it’s open to all, regardless of their legal status.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Sanctuary city organizer Wilson Skinner explained that the term was first coined in the 1980s. That’s when refugees fled violence and political persecution in Central America.

(Skinner) “The way we are envisioning sanctuary city is a place where people of all skin colors, all accents languages are treated equally. The question is, are we going to be flooded with immigrants?’ And the answer is no. People go to where there are jobs. If Burlington is booming and is flooded with jobs, people will come to Burlington regardless. If there are no jobs, people will not come.”

(Dillon) There are dozens of sanctuary cities around the country. The legal impact varies from place to place, depending on the city policy that’s adopted.

In general, the idea is to ensure that all residents are eligible for city services. Organizers also want to discourage police from asking for documentation that would show a person’s legal status.

Walt Decker is a deputy chief of police in Burlington. He says Burlington is a re-settlement community for refugees and that city police have a strong anti-bias policy.

(Decker) “Most instances, whether it’s a speeding ticket or a minor dispute, the question of citizenship doesn’t even come into the picture. We don’t ask it, we’re not required to.”

(Dillon) But Vermont law also requires police to determine whether a person who is arrested has ties to the community. And in checking out that question, police may come across the person’s immigration status.

(Decker) “If a person does not have proper identification or does not have a tie to the local community, in the process of running those checks, that’s where it comes up against the federal law as to whether this person actually should not be here.”

(Dillon) Proponents of the sanctuary city designation point to examples in other communities in which illegal immigrants called 911 for an emergency and then were turned over to immigration authorities.

In one case reported this summer, a Mexican farm worker in Addison County dialed 911 by mistake. He was trying to get an international line by dialing 011. When he realized the mistake and hung up, police responded and the worker was later arrested and deported.

Burlington resident Peter Lackowski attended the forum last week. He says people should not be afraid of reaching out for help in an emergency.

(Lackowski) “The thing that I’m thinking about is a public safety issue. I want to have people, everybody who lives in this town, and everybody who lives in Vermont, feel that they can call the police if something that needs to be deal with.”

(Dillon) Deputy Police Chief Decker says his department’s policy to help victims, not to ask for their immigration status.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.

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