- Associated Press - Saturday, February 11, 2017

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Once a year, Vermont residents take care of town business - as folks have for decades in some New England communities - at town meetings, voting on school budgets, hashing out whether to buy a new firetruck and, at times, voicing their rancor on national issues.

At this year’s meetings next month, several towns will take up whether to become sanctuary communities, as other cities have done, in response to President Donald Trump’s plans on immigration.

The small town of Calais - with a population of 1,600 - will consider becoming a sanctuary town for refugees and asylum-seekers and not participate in federal efforts to deport workers living in the country illegally. East Montpelier, Plainfield and Hartland will consider similar proposals.

“At this unusual time in our country’s situation, we need to work at every level possible to make this country the welcoming and decent place we want it to be,” said Liz Benjamin, a resident of East Montpelier who will be at next month’s meeting there.

While Benjamin appreciates what Republican Gov. Phil Scott has done with proposed legislation to protect people in Vermont from Trump’s immigration plans, she said she thinks it’s important to speak out at all levels.

Trump has promised to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities and impose strict federal immigration policies. That prompted physician Jeffrey Bell to act. He had collected more than 100 signatures in Hartland to bring up the sanctuary town proposal at their town meeting.

“What I hope it will do is keep the citizens of our town actively involved in stuff that’s important both from a political, but also from an emotional, point of view,” he said.

Unlike other national issues that have emerged at past town meetings - the Iraq war, the policies of former President George W. Bush and a nuclear freeze - the sanctuary consideration could affect local policy, said Bert Johnson, an associate professor and chairman of the Middlebury College political science department.

Town meetings have an “aura of legitimacy” because it’s people ruling directly rather than a state legislature or city council doing something, he said.

“So I think this an attractive venue for activists because it does seem to have that veneer of true democracy to it, especially at a time where people are making the argument that democracy at the national level is being eroded,” he said.

Until Trump’s order, officials in Rutland had been preparing for the arrival of between 25 and 30 families from Syrian and Iraq. The state also has resettled about 7,400 refugees from October 1988 to September 2016. Vermont has about 1,000 immigrant dairy farm workers, many of whom are likely in the country illegally.

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