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DOJ Demands Documents From Burlington Over 'Sanctuary Policies,' Threatens Subpoena

Image of downtown Burlington, Vermont from above.
The U.S. Department of Justice is demanding Burlington and 22 other jurisdictions turn over documents related to how they direct local law enforcement to communicate with federal immigration authorities.

The U.S. Department of Justice is demanding the city of Burlington hand over documents about how local law enforcement communicate with federal immigration authorities.

The DOJ announced Wednesday it was requesting documents from 23 jurisdictions, including Burlington, “that could show whether each jurisdiction is unlawfully restricting information sharing by its law enforcement officers with federal immigration authorities.”

The letters requested that jurisdictions provide documents by Feb. 23 or face a subpoena. The DOJ warned that the jurisdictions could lose Byrne JAG funding as a result of their policies.

In the DOJ’s letter to Burlington, the department asked specifically for documents related to how the city has instructed local law enforcement:

“All documents reflecting any orders, directives, instructions, or guidance to your law enforcement employees (including, but not limited to, police officers, correctional officers, and contract employees), whether formal or informal, that were distributed, produced, and/or in effect during the relevant timeframe, regarding whether and how these employees may, or may not, communicate with the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and/or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or their agents, whether directly or indirectly.”

In a written statement, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said the city was in compliance with federal law:

“Attorney General Sessions and President Trump can repeat and escalate their threats of arrests and subpoenas all they want – we will keep defending public safety in Burlington, standing up to federal overreach, and standing up for our values. The City of Burlington continues to maintain its compliance with federal civil immigration law section 1373, and categorically rejects AG Sessions’ false assertion that the City is in any way protecting criminals. Burlington police will continue to pursue the practices and policies that have made our city one of the safest and most welcoming cities in America, and we will resist the federal government’s unconstitutional attempt to deputize our officers as civil immigration agents.”

Weinberger also said the city would hand over the documents by the Feb. 23 deadline.

In past years, Burlington has received a $40,000 Byrne JAG grant and has used that money to fund the city’s community justice center.

After the DOJ first threatened the funds last November, Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said the city expected a letter from the DOJ and made plans to secure funding for the community justice center.

“Knowing [the grants] are a larger percent of their budget than ours, just to give them stability, we’ve agreed to give them the money and then roll the dice on our own funding here in the police department,” del Pozo told VPR in November. “The idea would be to shield these more vulnerable programs from the effects of losing the grant and allow us to make sense out of what remains in our own much larger budget.”
In November, the DOJ sent letters to cities and states around the U.S., including both Burlington and Vermont, warning that their “sanctuary policies” might violate federal law and cost them some federal money.

Officials in the city and state defended their policies in letters to the DOJ in December. In the latest round of letters, the state of Vermont was not asked by the Justice Department to hand over any documents.

When asked if the Justice Department had determined that the state of Vermont's policies were not in violation of federal law, a DOJ official said "the state of Vermont responded sufficiently." 

The Justice Department declined to provide any specific reasons why Burlington's letter in December failed to justify the city's policies. 

Update 01/25/2018 2:39 p.m. This post was updated to include comment from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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