State police adopt new policy on undocumented farm workers

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(Host) The director of the Vermont State Police says recent crimes against undocumented farm workers in Vermont have led to a new policy that will allow illegal immigrants to report criminal activity without fear of arrest or deportation.  

The move is being applauded by advocates for Mexican workers at Vermont dairy farms, many of whom are in this country illegally.  

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind)  Earlier this month state police were called to investigate a series of assaults and robberies at three Grand Isle County Farms.  Among the victims were Mexican farm workers. 

Until now, state police have questioned immigrant workers about their legal status when responding to a reported crime – which, in the past, has led to the arrest and deportation of undocumented workers. 

But Colonel James Baker, the director of the Vermont State Police, says this situation was a first.

(Baker) "It was a change in our position but it was the first time that we were confronted with this situation where individuals because of their immigration status were being targeted as victims."

(Zind)  Baker says from now on the policy of the state police will be not to inquire about a person’s immigration status if they are a victim of, or a witness to a crime.

(Baker) "This is a public safety issue.  We have an obligation to protect everybody.  It doesn’t matter what their immigration status is."

(Zind) Baker says people stopped for offenses like routine traffic violations will still be questioned about their immigration status. But police will not make stops solely to inquire about a person’s citizenship.

State Police enforcement of immigration laws has been a sore spot with advocates for Vermont’s Mexican farm workers, and last year officials at the Mexican consulate in Boston said enforcement of immigration laws in Vermont was the toughest of all the New England States.

Baker says state police are caught between their duty to enforce the law, and the federal government’s lack of action on reforming immigration statutes to address the status of Vermont’s Mexican farm workers.

(Baker) "This is a very tough position for us to be in and I know that we’ve taken criticism on this issue.  But again we are in a very tough position because of federal immigration law that hasn’t been dealt with, it gets pushed down to the states to end up dealing with and at the end of the day, the police, and in this case the state police are left with having to deal on a case by case basis when we are confronted with these issues."

(Zind) People who work with Mexican farm workers in Vermont were pleased with the state police action.  Cheryl Connor co-chairs the Addison County Migrant Worker’s Coalition.

(Connor) "I applaud the decision by the Vermont State Police and think that this is probably a start in the right direction for us, so that our migrant workers will be able to call the police if there’s a crime committed."

(Zind) There are an estimated 2,000 Mexican farm workers in Vermont.  Connor says they are key to the state’s dairy industry which has had trouble finding workers.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.

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