Sleeper objects to Mexican government allegations

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(Host) Vermont’s top law enforcement official strongly objects to a charge by the Mexican government that the state aggressively pursues illegal immigrants.

Public Safety Commissioner Kerry Sleeper says state police are not out looking for undocumented farm workers.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Rodrigo Marquez is the deputy consul in Boston for the Mexican government. He told a forum in Middlebury this week that Vermont has a reputation among immigrants as a state that’s tough on illegal Mexican farm workers.

Marquez had numbers that he claimed proved his point. He said 123 Mexicans in Vermont were detained and deported last year, compared to 33 in Massachusetts. Yet he said Massachusetts has almost Vermont

(Marquez) “Vermont compared to other states, it’s a tough state. Most of the Mexicans who for some reason have to be in contact with the police, they eventually end up deported.”

(Dillon) Public Safety Commissioner Kerry Sleeper overseas the state police. He says Marquez is flat-out wrong.

(Sleeper) “I can say very confidently that the statement that was made that Vermont was more aggressive in detaining more of these workers than other states is grossly distorted and completely inaccurate.”

(Dillon) Sleeper said he’s reviewed every instance in which state police detained illegal Mexicans or contacted border and customs officials. His numbers show 27 cases over two years, not the much higher figure cited by the Mexican government.

And Sleeper says in five of those cases, no one was detained or deported.

(Sleeper) “And we’ve made every attempt to be reasonable in this process. I’m aware of numbers of cases where we have come across people who are not documented where Border Patrol has been contacted and there’s been no removal that’s taken place.”

(Dillon) The difference in the two numbers seems to be a case of counting apples and oranges – or both federal and state actions. Marquez said he got his figures from families of immigrants and from federal border officials. Sleeper says that means the higher number reflects the federal action

And he points out that Vermont is a border state, so the number of people stopped by federal officials is likely to be much higher than in Massachusetts.

Sleeper said Vermont police do not act for the federal government in immigration cases. But when a person is stopped for a traffic violation for example, he said police are obligated to ask for identification and run a records check. If the person doesn’t have ID, police can call federal immigration agents.

But reached by phone in Boston, Marquez said police in other New England states usually don’t call the federal agents.

(Marquez) “Not just in New England but in other states, they just check the person and they send him to court or they give them a fine. Here the problem is they actually call the immigration officer and they ask if they have documents.”

(Dillon) Sleeper said state police are not out looking for illegal Mexicans.

(Sleeper) “The allegation that we are being aggressive actually infuriates me. Because it’s quite the contrary. We are going to great lengths to be reasonable in this process, to respect them as human beings, to respect the dairy industry. But also recognize at some point if there’s a crime is committed, we have to do our job. We’re sworn to do our job and we will.”

(Dillon) Sleeper says he’s worried that the public focus on the issue could attract federal enforcement action on Vermont’s dairy farms.

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

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