Dozens of people turned out at a rally in Newport in June of 2019 to protest the detention of three migrant farmworkers there

Migrant farmworkers fight to end collaboration between Vermont police and US Customs and Border Protection

Migrant farmworkers in Vermont are calling on the state to do more to protect them from detention and deportation over minor traffic violations.

The World

A traffic stop in Newport this past summer is intensifying concerns about collaboration between local police and federal immigration authorities. Now, migrant farmworkers in Vermont are calling on the state to do more to protect them from detention and deportation for minor traffic violations.

Migrant farmworkers have become a critical labor force for Vermont’s dairy industry, and though they’re often residing in the US, undocumented, many have become active and longtime members of the rural communities they live in.

With those residents in mind, Vermont has enacted something called a “Fair and Impartial Policing policy.” It’s supposed to prevent state and local police from turning farmworkers over to federal immigration officials.

Related: Mexico expels Central American migrants to rural Guatemala

Body camera footage from a recent traffic stop in Newport, however, suggests some officers are disregarding that policy.

The video

The footage begins a little after 8:30 a.m. on a partly cloudy day in Newport. Sgt. Richard Wells, with the Orleans County Sheriff’s Department, stopped Lorenzo Ulloa Valenzuela for speeding.

“Can I see your license, registration, insurance?” Wells asks.

Getting popped for a minor traffic violation is hardly a life-altering event for most Vermonters. For Valenzuela though, the stakes are raised when Wells goes back to his car and radios dispatch.

“Can you make a 21 over to [US Customs and Border Protection]? Let’s see if they have anybody in the area that can translate for me,” Wells says.

Wells soon returns to Valenzuela’s vehicle to update him on the situation.

“Don’t be alarmed, I have [US Customs and Border Protection (CBP)] coming here to translate for me,” Wells tells him.

It’s clear on the video that Valenzuela, who’s been living and working without documentation at a nearby dairy farm for three years, is gutted by Wells’ mention of the federal authorities.

His face suddenly drops, and he draws his left hand over his mouth.

Valenzuela doesn’t speak much English, but he activates a translation app on his smartphone, so he can communicate to the officer that there’s no need for CBP. 

“I have another person who can translate,” Valenzuela says to Wells.

As the interaction proceeds, however, it becomes clear that translation services aren’t the only reason Wells has enlisted CBP in this stop.

He’s actually figured out how to communicate with Valenzuela since his initial call for translation services, after finding and activating the translation app on his smartphone.

He says as much to dispatch.

Related: Many Venezuelan migrants in Latin America struggle to get vaccinated

“I have the translation part down here a little bit on my phone — I’ve got an app I can do translations with,” Wells says. “But I believe this person is still probably [undocumented] here, so they can still 76 and I’ll chat with them.”

Fair and impartial policing in Vermont

“Still 76” is code that means CBP should stay en route to the scene — presumably, according to a migrant farmworker advocacy group, so they can arrest Valenzuela for being in the country undocumented.

“When local law enforcement is getting information … and then they share that information with [CBP], that gives [CBP] what they need to apprehend and detain and deport people.”

Will Lambek, Migrant Justice

“When local law enforcement is getting information, either supposition or evidence about people with whom they come into contact, and then they share that information with [CBP], that gives [CBP] what they need to apprehend and detain and deport people,” said Will Lambek, a staff member at Migrant Justice, which provided the bodycam footage to Vermont Public Radio. 

Jay Diaz, general counsel at the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, has also reviewed the footage. He said even the initial request for translation services from CBP was a violation of the state’s Fair and Impartial Policing policy.

“So, I think it’s pretty clear on its face,” Diaz said.

Diaz said it’s also a violation of policy for officers to inquire about the immigration status of a motorist or anyone else they come into contact with over the course of their law enforcement duties.

He said the traffic stop involving Valenzuela spotlights the importance of a stronger Fair and Impartial Policing policy in Vermont.

“I think we’ve seen time and time again that local law enforcement, Vermont law enforcement will reach out to [CBP] and ICE in a variety of circumstances with the thinking that, well, I should be supporting the mission of these federal agencies, when the state has made a clear policy that that is not the case, that is not what Vermont wants its officers to be doing,” Diaz said.

For migrant farmworkers like Olga, who’s been living and working in Vermont for nine years, Wells’ actions underscore the precarity of their situation here.

VPR is using first names to protect worker identity and avoid employment or legal repercussions.

“Your whole life depends on the outcome of this police stop.”

Olga, migrant farmworkers

“When this young guy [Valenzuela] holds his head in his hands, you can see the fear that, obviously, we would all feel if someone told us that [CBP] was coming for us,” Olga said. “It’s so, so serious. Why? Because your whole life depends on the outcome of this police stop. Will you stay here or will you be deported?”

Olga is a member of Migrant Justice, which has worked for years to improve protections for migrant farmworkers living in Vermont.

“When I saw Lorenzo’s video in particular, I felt so powerless seeing that this is still happening in Vermont,” Olga said. “We’ve fought so hard for this law and … they don’t even respect it, like it was nothing. And if our struggle has been in vain, then what have we been fighting for all this time?”

Policy update?

Stops like the one in Newport are why Migrant Justice is asking the state to update the Fair and Impartial Policing policy.

“Because essentially what we have here is a systemic failure,” Lambek, with Migrant Justice, said.

The current Fair and Impartial Policing policy allows state or local police to share information with federal immigration officials on the grounds of “public safety, officer safety, or needs unrelated to civil immigration enforcement.”

Lambek said that verbiage creates enormous loopholes that give police a way to adhere to the letter of the policy while violating its intent.

“The carve-outs are so broad and so poorly designed, that time and again we’ve seen Vermont law enforcement agents involve immigration in a traffic stop, and then after the fact use these categories to justify that call,” Lambek said.

Migrant Justice wants to strip out that language, and replace it with a new provision that would allow police to share information with immigration authorities only when it’s “necessary for the ongoing investigation of a felony for which there’s probable cause.”

Lambek said eight Vermont law enforcement agencies in Vermont have already adopted the more stringent language on their own.

“And the alternative enhanced policy that they’ve adopted closes these loopholes, and it ensures that the Fair and Impartial Policing policy has integrity. When it says don’t collaborate with ICE, it actually means it,” Lambek said.

Maj. Justin Stedman, with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, is chair of the Fair and Impartial Policing subcommittee at the Vermont Criminal Training Council, which is responsible for reviewing proposed changes to Vermont’s model Fair and Impartial Policing policy.

Stedman, who’s also served for two years on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said Vermont’s policy should be as protective as possible for undocumented residents.

“Let’s be honest, if migrants are afraid of the police, they’re the most likely to be taken advantage of …

Maj. Justin Stedman, Department of Fish and Wildlife

“Let’s be honest, if migrants are afraid of the police, they’re the most likely to be taken advantage of, because people, well they’re not going to go to the cops,” Stedman said. “So, it just puts people who are at extreme risk in even at more of risk if they don’t feel comfortable coming to law enforcement.”

But he said federal law prohibits states from restricting certain communication between state and federal authorities. And the proposed language from Migrant Justice, he said, likely contravenes federal statute.

“Regardless of my feelings about the issue, if we can’t do it legally, then in my mind that’s sort of where we need to refocus our efforts,” Stedman said. “Because if we make bad policy or we make policy that’s not legal, I don’t think that we’re helping anybody, or really helping the situation at all.”

Stedman said he thinks there’s a path to achieve the protections Migrant Justice is calling for, by updating the Fair and Impartial Policing policy with language that doesn’t run afoul of federal law.

Noé, a farmworker from Orleans County, said Migrant Justice’s proposal is the surest way to ensure that stops like the one in Newport don’t escalate in the future.

“The truth is that we live in fear knowing that police are collaborating with immigration when that shouldn’t keep happening.”

Noé, farmworker from Orleans County

“The truth is that we live in fear knowing that police are collaborating with immigration when that shouldn’t keep happening,” Noé said. “But we’re going to keep fighting so that the police don’t violate our human rights. Because we are human beings, too, and we deserve equal treatment.”

Attorney General TJ Donovan said the federal law Stedman’s worried about contravening is known as US Code 1373. Donovan said his office thinks that law may be on shaky constitutional ground.

As it stands, however, he said the statute says “you can’t prohibit law enforcement agents from volunteering information” to federal authorities.

And while Donovan may oppose that portion of code, he said that doesn’t mean the state of Vermont can adopt policy that violates it.

He said Vermont instead needs to engage in a “careful navigation of striking a balance between being protective of everybody in this state, including the immigrant farmworkers who are Vermonters, while at the same time complying with federal law.”

How the traffic stop ends

Lorenzo Ulloa Valenzuela managed to escape his interaction on June 29 without coming into contact with CBP. But the bodycam footage shows just how severely it imperiled his future in the United States.

After encouraging CBP to continue en route to the scene of the traffic stop, because he believed Valenzuela was undocumented, Wells is talking with a fellow officer when they get a call from a member of CBP.

The federal officer explains to Wells that CBP policy prohibits agents from responding to calls for “translation services.” CBP can, however, respond to calls to “assist and backup.”

And if, in the course of assisting, the CBP officer says, “You know, we discover, you know, ‘Hey whaddya know? This guy happens to be out of status,’ or something.”

Shortly after the federal officer says those words, Wells’ hand reaches for his body camera, and the footage mutes midconversation, then turns off entirely.

The footage picks up about 2 1/2 minutes later, just as Wells’ call with CBP ends.

Wells returns to Valenzuela’s vehicle. Because Valenzuela was driving with a learner’s permit, Wells tells him he can’t leave in his car. Valenzuela says he has someone coming to pick him up, and that they’ll arrive in about an hour.

Wells advises against that timetable.

Related: Colombian farmers bet on bird-watching lodges to conserve forests

“The reason — the quicker we get you out of the here, the better chance the [CB[] agent will not be here,” Wells said.

VPR asked Migrant Justice how they interpret what seems like an odd contradiction: Wells seemingly trying to rescue Valenzuela from a deportation crisis he just manufactured.

Migrant Justice members say Valenzuela had called a representative from their organization while Wells was talking to CBP. When Wells figured out who Valenzuela was now talking to, they say, he tried to cover his tracks by making it seem like he was on Valenzuela’s side.

During the final minutes of the traffic stop, Wells tells Valenzuela to drive to a nearby gas station, and wait in his car for his friends to pick him up, which Wells now knows will be in about an hour.

According to dispatch records obtained through a records request by Migrant Justice, authorities noted that Valenzuela’s vehicle “has been grounded” at the gas station, and that CBP “will be notified where that vehicle is.”

Will Lambek, of Migrant Justice, thinks that Wells told CBP precisely where they’d be able to find Valenzuela as he awaited his ride. The final seconds of the bodycam footage shows a Newport police officer, who arrived at the scene during the stop, asking Wells, “Is it working?”

At that point, Wells appears again to turn off his bodycam footage.

All those elements, Lambek said, show a plot between state and federal authorities to detain Valenzuela on immigration charges. And Lambek said they provide “hard evidence that this was a plan that was concocted and that they fully expected Lorenzo to be detained by [CBP] at that gas station.”

Orleans County Sheriff Jennifer Harlow declined to comment for this story. She did provide a statement saying that CBP never arrived on the scene.

Related: Undocumented women face shrinking options for reproductive health care under Texas abortion law

She also said that Wells had indeed violated her department’s Fair and Impartial Policing policy.

She said she held a “department training” on that policy after the incident, and said “Sgt. Wells addressed the department and took ownership of what he had done incorrectly.”

“Our departmental policy was violated and I can ensure the public and my community this is not a practice of my department,” Harlow said in the written statement. “We treat everyone we come into contact with, with dignity and respect.”

Migrant Justice maintains that Valenzuela was simply fortunate enough to depart the scene before immigration authorities had time to arrive.

And they worry the next farmworker stopped by police won’t be so lucky.

An earlier version of this story was originally published by Vermont Public Radio.

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