MONTPELIER, Vt. — The two Mexican farmworkers were nervous. Seated in a pickup truck whose driver had been stopped for speeding on a Vermont highway, they didn’t know what to expect from the state trooper.
They’d heard of other farmworkers being detained or deported in the largely white state, whose $560 million dairy industry relies on Mexican farmhands like them. But one of the men also had been in a similar stop in New York and didn’t get bothered.
They had no idea their detention by police and Border Patrol would prompt a protest by activists at the state police barracks, or the outpouring of support they’ve gotten with people offering them housing and help. The stop would lead Vermont’s governor to change the state police policy on dealing with suspected illegal immigrants, making it one of the most restrictive on police in the n ation, according to one policy expert who supports tougher immigration laws.
The combination of more illegal immigrants moving beyond the border states to follow jobs and a lack of federal immigration reform has some states and communities coming up with their own enforcement policies — written or not.
They range from crackdowns to a hands-off approach where police are prohibited from asking about immigration status.
“Almost every community is like a border state because illegal immigrants are so much more mobile than they used to be. They go where the jobs are. They spread out across the country,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for tougher immigration laws.
The immigrants settle not in traditional urban areas but in places like Iowa, Missouri, east Washington state and Vermont, she said.
“It has to do with where the jobs are where the recruiters are for these jobs,” she said.
Under policy revisions made since the arrest, the Vermont State Police will not ask an individual about his or her immigration status when investigating a civil violation — mainly a traffic stop — but can ask about it in investigations of criminal offenses or suspicious activity in certain cases.
The changes were made to ensure the fair and equal treatment of all individuals in Vermont, said Vermont Public Safety Director Keith Flynn.
But troopers cannot launch a criminal investigation only because they suspect a person is in the country illegally.
If they respond to a 911 call about a domestic assault, for example, and see that a woman has been beaten up, they would do all they could to identify the suspected offender except ask about immigration status because it would not be relevant, said Stephanie Dasaro, state police spokeswoman. They could ask about it after an arrest has been made.
But if troopers were looking into a case of human trafficking in which immigration is relevant, they could ask about immigration status, she said.
The Massachusetts State Police have a similar policy, while states like Arizona and Alabama are taking immigration enforcement into their own hands, with tough new laws.
The Alabama law, considered the toughest in the country, requires police to detain people who can’t prove they are in the country legally and prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving government services.
In Arizona, a federal judge has blocked enforcement of a portion of the state’s 2010 immigration enforcement law that required police, while enforcing other laws, to question people’s immigration status if officers suspect they are in the country illegally.
The laws have prompted protests and boycotts and legal challenges. Critics say they will lead to racial profiling.
States or communities that don’t enforce immigration laws say they don’t want local law enforcement tied up doing the work of the federal government. Advocates say it could also make communities less safe by deterring immigrants from reporting crimes out of fear of deportation.
“Local governments would prefer that it just be a federal issue that they don’t have to come up with policies,” said Sarahi Uribe, national campaign coordinator for the National Day Laborers Organizing Network.
But, she added, “the reality is that they just have no choice because immigration reform is not happening anytime soon.”
Vermont’s change comes as the federal government demands that states participate in a federal program aimed at identifying and deporting illegal immigrants.
Under the Secure Communities program, state and local law enforcement are required to send criminal suspects’ fingerprints to the FBI, where they are run through a database to determine the person’s immigration status.
The Department of Homeland Security says it’s an information sharing program that is focused on criminal offenders.
A handful of states, including Massachusetts and Illinois, have defied the federal mandate to participate, saying they should not be required to enforce federal laws.
Vaughan calls Vermont’s state police policy one of the most restrictive on police in the country.
“Because most law enforcement professionals would not want to restrict what their officers can and cannot do that broadly. That’s definitely a minority,” she said.
One of the men in Vermont who was found by Border Patrol to have been in this country illegally has voluntarily returned to Mexico. The other faces an immigration hearing in Boston. His lawyer did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Supporters of Vermont’s new policy hope it will be adopted by local police and other states.
“If Arizona is going to go in one direction and Alabama in one direction, then our work really matters. You know if we’re able to create a more just and sort of humane response to a sort of broken immigration system here, then it can have ripple effects,” said Brendan O’Neill of the VT Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project.