- Associated Press - Monday, March 13, 2017

SWANTON, Vt. (AP) - Stand at the small police department in Swanton, and the nearest Vermont State Police barracks is more than 11 miles down the highway in St. Albans. But you could reach the local U.S. Border Patrol headquarters by foot, if you wanted, by walking less than a mile.

Time and distance mean everything in an emergency - and that’s why the Swanton Police Department regularly calls U.S. border agents for backup in cases that have nothing to do with the border.

Swanton is a town of about 6,400 people, one town away from the official port of entry in Highgate.

Federal officers can show up within five minutes to help secure a property during a search warrant or provide backup during a domestic incident, said Chief Leonard Stell of the Swanton Police Department.

Stell said border agents help with “scene stabilization” and safety rather than the investigative help that would be done by the Vermont State Police.

“We’re a small agency,” Stell said. “They’re our closest backup when we need them for emergencies.”

Swanton police are ready to assist border agents in turn, but Stell says they’ve never been asked to work on an immigration issue.

“Do we go knocking on doors and say, ‘Hey, are you illegally in the United States?’ No,” Stell said, adding later, “It’s not my duty to ask them if they’re a U.S. citizen.”

The relationship between Border Patrol and local police is “great,” said Michael Estrella, operations officer for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Swanton sector, which spans 295 miles from eastern New York to the state line between New Hampshire and Maine.

“There’s no formal mutual aid agreement that exists between the border patrol and local law enforcement, but we assist them as much as possible as often as we can,” Estrella said.

Estrella said agents are legally obligated to enforce immigration law, including when they are providing mutual aid.

“If an agent comes in contact with someone that is present illegally, by law we have to take action on that,” Estrella said.

U.S. Border Patrol maintains a sector headquarters in Swanton and also has stations in Swanton, Richford, Newport and Beecher Falls, Estrella said.

Border agents recently helped with a DUI case in Alburgh and helped to locate a suspect in an attempted murder in St. Albans.

Some lawmakers are worried that the close ties between federal, state and local law enforcement could be endangered by S.79, the bill that responds to President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration.

The bill prohibits Vermont officers from collecting personal information, including religion or immigration status, for the purpose of contributing to a federal registry. It would also require the governor and attorney general to approve any agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that would train and deputize local officers to act as immigration and customs agents.

Neither of those sections would directly affect the kind of relationship that Swanton Police have with border agents - but some Republicans in the House of Representatives are still worried.

“It sends the message that they’re not going to get any help from Vermont law enforcement when they need it,” said House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton.

“Right now, people want to protect these illegal aliens working on the farms, or I guess undocumented migrants is what we’re calling them today,” Turner said in a recent interview, adding later that the bill is “trying to appease a lot of people.”

Turner and several other lawmakers have argued that the bill signals non-cooperation with federal officials.

S.79 does nothing of the sort, argues Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson.

“The singular concern I had in this legislation was protecting those partnerships,” Anderson said, defending the bill at a legislative hearing. “I understand the value of them. I understand how they work. . That was my overriding concern.”

Julio Thompson, who works in the Attorney General’s Office civil rights unit, also argued that mutual-aid agreements and other relationships would remain untouched under S.79.

“This bill is not intended at all to interfere with any number of cooperative investigative law enforcement efforts,” Thompson said.

Estrella, of the U.S. Border Patrol, declined to weigh in on Vermont’s S.79. He was unaware of anyone from U.S. Border Patrol commenting on the bill in Montpelier.

The bill sailed through the state Senate with a unanimous 30-0 vote and support from Senate Republicans. The bill is now being discussed at the House Judiciary Committee, where it will likely change.

Rep. Maxine Grad, the chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, said earlier this month that she would work to clarify the language in the bill to respond to perceived concerns about federal and local relationships.

“Perception is reality,” said Grad, D-Moretown, explaining the need to clarify the bill.

Federal law says that no police officer can be prohibited from voluntarily sharing immigration information with the federal government. S.79 was carefully written to avoid running afoul of that law.

In addition to S.79, Vermont lawmakers are also considering requiring all police agencies to adopt the entire model fair and impartial policing policy, including elements related to immigration enforcement.

Some elements of that policy are untenable, Chief Stell said, because he believes they would erode Swanton’s relationship with federal partners. He said Swanton Police have adopted the essential elements of the policy but set aside the optional elements.

Some Vermont police agencies are also pursuing deeper collaboration with federal authorities.

Vermont’s Divison of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is currently accepting applications for agencies that want Operation Stonegarden grant funding this year, as Vermont Public Radio has reported. The purpose of the grant is to “better conduct operations along the Vermont/Canada border in conjunction with the United States Border Patrol,” according to state officials.

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Information from: The Burlington Free Press, https://www.burlingtonfreepress.com

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