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Migrant workers to breathe easier under new Middlebury policy

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November 1, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Undocumented migrant workers in Addison County who have steered clear of the public eye for fear of being deported can now walk openly without fear in Middlebury — providing they abide by the law, just like any citizen.

The Middlebury Police Department recently adopted a new policy on how to respond to reports of undocumented foreign nationals. The policy stipulates that Middlebury officers will only report to federal authorities undocumented foreign workers who:

• Have committed a crime.

• Are “suspected of conduct or conspiracy that is criminal in nature … or which undermines homeland security.”

• Are suspected to be involved in human trafficking, or have “no credible means of identification nor any U.S. citizen or consular officials to provide identification, country of citizenship, residence and purpose for their presence for the United States.”

The new policy, unanimously endorsed by town selectmen last week, also states that Middlebury police will accept the validated Mexican Consular ID card, or “Matricula Consular,” as proof of identity and documentation. Middlebury now becomes one of only a few communities in the state to recognize the controversial Matricula Consular as a valid ID.

“We wanted a standardized way on how to deal with undocumented immigrants,” Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said. “Obviously, it’s a looming issue in Addison County, with the numbers (of undocumented foreign workers) we have here.”

An estimated 500 migrant workers — hailing primarily from Mexico — currently toil in anonymity at farms throughout Addison County, working at jobs that most Vermonters don’t want to perform while sending wages back to their families. Most of these workers have improper or inadequate immigration documentation. As a result, they have been reluctant to frequent local stores, churches and restaurants for fear of being flagged and deported.

That fear, Hanley explained, was a major catalyst for the new Middlebury policy. A fearful population is usually less cooperative in interacting with police, he reasoned.

“Since we’ve got a larger and looming population of mostly law abiding folks who are working on farms or working in other areas, we wanted to make sure we didn’t get a population that was victimized, that wasn’t reporting things to the police because they were afraid of being deported,” Hanley said.

“This group is victimized in other parts of the country because they don’t call for help,” he added. “We don’t want people preyed on.”

State and local activists for migrant workers’ issues hailed Middlebury’s new policy and voiced hopes that it will be replicated in other communities throughout Vermont and the nation.

“It is a huge step in reducing the climate of fear people are living in,” said Cheryl Mitchell, a member of the Addison County Migrant Workers Coalition, said on Monday. “I totally applaud them for undertaking this.

“I would hope they are trend setting in encouraging boards of selectmen and police departments in other towns to take the same step,” Mitchell added.

Hanley stressed his department established the policy after careful research. That research included a meeting with Mexican government officials, who explained the “Matricula Consular” identification card and ways to verify its authenticity. Mexican nationals can obtain Matricula cards at their consular offices after showing a birth certificate and one other form of identity. Proponents of the cards believe they offer a way, absent a Green Card (official documentation of permanent U.S. residency for immigrants), of verifying the identity and good standing of Mexican nationals on U.S. soil.

Opponents of the Matricula cards believe they are awarded indiscriminately, can be easily forged and duplicated, and should not be considered a valid alternative to a Green Card or passport.

The Vermont Department of Public Safety has chosen not to recognize the Matricula card as a valid form of ID.

Still, Hanley said he is comfortable with the manner in which Matricula cards can be checked. He said he is confident the cards can be effectively tracked and his department has been given a 24-hour number to verify authenticity.

“Obviously, if we had an undocumented immigrant who violated the law, then we would go through the process of notifying the U.S. Border Patrol and letting the chips fall where they may,” Hanley said. “We’re not going to spend our time and resources hunting down who may or may not be undocumented.”

Robert Appel, director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, said Middlebury’s new policy appears to be among the most progressive in the state. Commission members have voiced concerns about the extent to which racial profiling may have served as a trigger for some police officials in detaining foreign workers. The U.S. Justice Department on June 17, 2003, issued a policy banning federal law enforcement officials from engaging in racial profiling.

“Hopefully, Middlebury’s policy will not be unique and other departments will follow suit,” Appel said.

At least one other police agency in Vermont has already established rules in dealing with foreign nationals. The Burlington Police Department on April 4 updated its policy on “victim/witness assistance” with language stipulating (among other things) that “officers should communicate that they are there to provide assistance and to ensure safety, and not to deport victims/witnesses, and that officers do not ask victims/witnesses about their immigration status, nor will they report immigrants or immigration status to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

Middlebury’s new policy was scheduled to take effect this week.

“It’s a very well-written policy and I fully support the implementation of this policy,” Middlebury Selectman Craig Bingham said.

“It certainly to me seems like a reasonable course,” selectboard Chairman John Tenny said.

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