The state of Vermont and its largest city, Burlington, are among 29 jurisdictions around the country to receive letters from the U.S. Justice Department Wednesday warning they may be violating a law.
The letters say it may run counter to federal policies to have local rules that prevent employees—namely, police officers—from communicating with federal agents about people's immigration status.
The letters suggest those local rules could disqualify the recipients from collecting certain federal grant funds.
"Jurisdictions that adopt so-called 'sanctuary policies' also adopt the view that the protection of criminal aliens is more important than the protection of law-abiding citizens and of the rule of law," U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. "I urge all jurisdictions found to be potentially out of compliance in this preliminary review to reconsider their policies that undermine the safety of their residents."
Vermont’s Republican Governor, Phil Scott, told reporters Thursday that he is awaiting a legal opinion on the city’s situation, but believes the state has nothing to worry about.
"We believe the Attorney General—the U.S. Attorney General—has not done his homework and we're actually in compliance," Gov. Scott said.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, told necn Thursday he believes the city is on firm legal ground with its approach to policing.
"Our police have long believed that we don't keep Burlingtonians safe by focusing on immigration status when we are doing our routine policing," Weinberger said. "We don't want people hesitating to call the police based on their status or the immigration status of their neighbors."
According to the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the state of Vermont could miss out on about $500,000 in justice assistance grants in fiscal year 2017 if it's found to be in violation of federal policies, and the city of Burlington could lose about $40,000.
Leahy said Sessions is actually putting public safety at risk by delaying hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide in funding for law enforcement in critical areas such as anti-heroin task forces.
"These moves against the State of Vermont and the City of Burlington by Attorney General Sessions are shameful," Leahy said in a statement late Wednesday. "I strongly believe that police chiefs and local leaders should decide what state and local policies are necessary and best to keep their communities safe — not an Attorney General who is attempting to extort immigration reform by cutting off vital public safety dollars to local communities and their residents."
Chief Brandon del Pozo of the Burlington Police Department said Thursday he has been planning on using the federal funds for crime victims’ services and on upgrades to technology in cruisers.
"I had Speaker of the House Ryan tell me personally, face-to-face in Wisconsin, that he believes the federal government should stay out of local crime control," del Pozo told necn. "But yet what this is, is the opposite. When it’s convenient, people say, 'Forget all of that. We're going to use federal grant dollars to force you to police in a way we think is right.'"
Will Lambek, a spokesman for the group Migrant Justice, which advocates for policies that empower and protect migrant workers and human rights, called the letters "another example of bullying from the Trump administration," and argued Thursday that they are part of a campaign to stoke anti-immigrant feelings which do not have a place in Vermont or other communities.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, sharply criticized the warnings from the U.S. Justice Department to the jurisdictions.
"It is outrageous for Attorney General Sessions and the Department to threaten to withhold funds based on political threats," Sanders said in a written statement Thursday. "Yesterday's letters to the State of Vermont and City of Burlington from the Department of Justice are nothing more than another attack by the Trump administration on our communities—a way to try to divide us up rather than go forward with comprehensive immigration reform."
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, also weighed in.
"This decision is a slap in the face to Burlington, the State of Vermont and law enforcement agencies across our state," Welch said in a written statement Wednesday. "It is a blatant attempt by the Attorney General to strong-arm state and local governments in this country to fall in line with the Trump Administration’s offensive anti-immigrant policies. The courts should block this heavy-handed and punitive decision."
The jurisdictions have until December 8 to respond to the DOJ, according to the letters.
The notifications from the U.S. Justice Department do not reflect any final decisions. They say that the feds have not yet determined if the jurisdictions are in compliance, so ask for more information from them to aid in that process.