Amid Uncertainty From White House, Vt. Immigration Task Force Forms

Immigration issues have returned to the spotlight nationally, and on the local level in Vermont, after a series of announcements Wednesday by President Donald Trump.

Trump, speaking at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, announced policy changes he said are aimed at keeping the nation safe, NBC News reported.

The announcements included a step toward building a wall on the nation's southern border with Mexico, hiring thousands of new border patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and stopping the flow of federal funds to what are known as "sanctuary cities" that protect undocumented immigrants from deportation—unless those funds are related to law enforcement.

"We are going to save lives on both sides of the border," Trump predicted.

Immigration, while a mostly federal concern, is deeply personal to many in Vermont.

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, a Democrat, announced Wednesday the formation of a new task force to advise his office on its legal authority on immigration matters. Donovan noted his announcement comes amid great uncertainty about the Trump administration's policies, including those pertaining to refugees.

The task force includes bipartisan members of the Vermont Legislature, experts in immigration law, an ACLU lawyer, a member of the Vermont State Police, and the executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission.

"Many Vermonters have raised questions to me about what may happen at the federal level regarding immigration," Donovan said. "The short answer is we don't know. I think what is driving some of the fear and anxiety is the unknown."

NBC News reported that other White House actions, which could come as early as this week, may include temporarily limiting immigration of refugees and blocking visas for citizens of Middle Eastern and African countries deemed by the Trump administration to be particularly prone to terrorism. Those nations include Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

Right now, the city of Rutland is in the process of greeting up to 100 refugees from Syria and Iraq, who Mayor Christopher Louras has said are expected to gradually arrive through September.

Immigration task force member Kesha Ram said she hopes Vermont will remain a welcoming place for refugees, even amid that murky future for refugee policy out of D.C.

"It makes me sad and shocked to think that people who finally made it out of a living hell like what's going on in Syria will now lose hope again and not be able to get here," Ram told necn Wednesday. "But that's on a personal level. And as a member of this task force, we're going to be moving cautiously and getting answers for Vermonters."

Advocates for Vermont's migrant farm worker community have been critical of President Trump.

It's widely believed there are roughly 1,500-2,000 undocumented farm workers in Vermont. They are often invisible, but are critical to the state's famous dairy industry.

Enrique Balcazar came to Vermont from Mexico for a farm job and now speaks up for that community with the activist group Migrant Justice.

Balcazar told necn he is deeply disappointed at rhetoric from the Trump administration. Balcazar said he feels candidate and now President Trump has painted many migrants as negative drains on the United States, instead of acknowledging their positive contributions—like providing important labor to farms.

"The community is really more united than ever, because it's clear President Trump is seeking to go against human rights, and as we say, you can't trump human rights," Balcazar said Wednesday through an interpreter.

Several Vermont communities are also considering becoming so-called sanctuary cities, which would see them adopt formal policies to protect undocumented residents from deportation.

The Associated Press reported Attorney General Donovan has concerns about that designation, because sanctuary cities don't have legal status.

According to NBC News, Trump, after announcing he would clamp down on sanctuary cities, stressed the policy changes are aimed at keeping the nation safe and ending "one injustice after another" for the families of those killed by undocumented immigrants.

"We hear you, we see you, and you will never ever be ignored again," Trump told his audience.

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