MONTPELIER — Vermont state officials flexed their muscles Thursday, unveiling proposed legislation to prevent law enforcement agencies in Vermont from cooperating with federal authorities on immigration enforcement in response to executive orders from Republican President Donald Trump.
Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, appeared at a news conference Thursday with Democratic Attorney General T.J. Donovan and a tri-partisan group of lawmakers from both the House and Senate in an extraordinary show of cooperation. They worked collaboratively to craft legislation they say will address the federal government’s “overreach” in a series of executive orders signed by the president. Scott has emerged as one of the highest-profile Republican governors to buck Trump’s efforts to boost immigration enforcement and enhance border security.
“We can’t pick and choose what pieces of the Constitution we defend and that is why we are here today,” the governor said. “All of us here appreciate the importance of ensuring national security and protecting against foreign terrorists’ entry, but despite how you might feel about the contents of those executive orders, it’s increasingly clear that elements of these orders violate the constitutional rights of American citizens and infringe on the states’ rights afforded by the Tenth Amendment.”
Trump signed a series of executive orders late last month that indefinitely bars Syrians from entering the country and suspends all immigrants from entering the country for 120 days. Meanwhile, all citizens of seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen are forbidden to the enter the U.S. for 90 days.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled late Thursday in favor of the state of Washington, upholding a stay on Trump’s orders while constitutional challenges play out in the federal court system. The ruling effectively pauses the orders until the court case concludes.
The legislation proposed Thursday would grant Scott, as the governor, the sole authority to enter into any agreements with the federal government that allow local, county or state law enforcement agencies in Vermont to enforce federal immigration laws. Scott said he does not foresee any reason for authorizing such agreements.
“I will not enter into any agreements under the border security and immigration enforcement orders, which ask states and local officials to carry out immigration enforcement functions at the states’ expense,” he said.
The proposed legislation would prevent law enforcement agencies in Vermont from collecting personal identifying information such as race, religion or sexual orientation. It would also keep law enforcement agencies in the state from sharing that type of information with the federal government.
Donovan said those measures are intended to prevent the state’s participation in any type of registry the Trump administration may seek to create.
“Vermont will not be complacent, nor will Vermont be complicit, in what is federal overreach,” Donovan said. “This legislation enshrines what was written in our Constitution over 200 years ago, that is individual freedom and freedom from religious discrimination. It does not matter who you are, where you’re from, whom you love or who you worship.”
Scott said the legislation was written to comply with existing federal law and does not make Vermont a so-called “sanctuary state.”
The legislation was vetted by the governor’s Civil Rights and Criminal Justice Cabinet, which he created after Trump signed the executive orders. The group includes Scott, Donovan, various members of Scott’s cabinet, leaders of the House and Senate and members of the law enforcement community.
“This is an important step for our state to ensure that all who reside in and visit our state feel safe and free to engage with law enforcement and other government authorities without fear,” the governor said. “I want to be very clear, this bill has been very carefully crafted through a consensus building process to confirm Vermont remains compliant with federal law.”
The bill was sponsored by leaders of the Democratic and Progressive parties in the House, but Republican Minority Leader Don Turner, of Milton, declined to endorse it. Instead, Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, a moderate, offered her name as a sponsor.
“I have a problem with the message that’s being sent that’s not accurate. This bill, the governor was clear that this did not create a sanctuary state. When I’m on the street at home people are saying, ‘Oh, you’re creating a sanctuary state,’” Turner told reporters after the news conference. “I want to make sure that I don’t line up and support a bill until it gets through the process so I can read it when I get to vote on it. I think people on the street need to understand not everybody up here is 100 percent behind what’s being proposed and that we will reserve our right to bring in witnesses, have law enforcement be heard, let the parties and stakeholders be heard like every other piece of legislation, and then we’ll get a chance to vote on it when it comes to the floor.”
Scheuermann said she generally supports Trump’s efforts to address trade policy, tax reform and ending gridlock in Washington, but has “concerns about some of the presidential things thus far.”
“I thought about this for some time yesterday and as this was being developed. I decided in the end, I am very much a Republican. I support civil liberties. I am really concerned about the 120-day stop to the refugee resettlement program. I think that’s especially concerning for me,” she said. “The refugee resettlement program is known to be one of the really good government programs. People aren’t leaving their homes as refugees because they want to. They’re leaving their homes because they’re forced to, and I’ve been proud of the United States accepting and wanting them.”
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, a Democrat from South Hero, noted the unique cooperation on display Thursday.
“I’m proud to stand here with a group of trailblazing Vermonters. It’s not often that you see the House, the Senate, the administration and the attorney general with tri-partisan support standing here on the same page on such a critical issue,” she said. “This is a very important time for Vermonters, and here in Vermont we’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder on this issue.”
One of the president’s executive orders calls for financial sanctions against local and state jurisdictions that become sanctuary communities. Scott and Donovan said there is no legal definition or designation of a sanctuary city or state, and they believe Vermont’s exposure to penalties from the Trump administration is limited.
“I’ve heard some of the rhetoric and hopefully cooler heads will prevail and we’ll get through this and recognize the important contributions our immigrants, the refugees, have placed on American in general, but here in Vermont, as well,” Scott said. “We’ve looked into that. We think it’s on the smaller end of the scale, but at the same time, we have few resources available to us so we have to be careful of what we do.”
The governor noted that disallowing immigrants from coming to Vermont could also have negative economic impacts on the state.
Scott said he has not heard from the White House or any federal agencies since state officials began discussing possible responses to the executive orders last week.
“We haven’t had any calls from or contact with the White House,” he said. “We’ll probably have that opportunity at some point.”
Vermont’s congressional delegation — Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch — issued a joint statement Thursday supporting the state’s actions.
“We commend Governor Scott, Attorney General Donovan and our state’s legislative leaders for their commitment to protecting the rights of all Vermonters. Our offices have taken hundreds of calls from Vermonters who are deeply concerned about the impact of the Executive Orders coming from the Trump Administration,” they wrote. “The idea of creating federal registries based on religion or national origin harkens back to dark chapters in history and is an affront to our nation’s values. We also appreciate the efforts to clarify the duties of state and local law enforcement agencies and officers, in relation to federal law enforcement.”