Advisory committee explores treatment of imigrants and refugees

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(Host) A state advisory committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission is exploring how immigrants and refugees are treated in Vermont.

The committee heard complaints today that immigrants are sometimes subjected to racial profiling and discrimination.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Attorney Leslie Holman practices immigration law. And she says her clients from Canada face a different reality in Vermont than immigrants from Africa, the Middle East or Central America.

(Holman) “I know several individuals who are legitimately present in the U.S. who’ve been taken into custody merely because of their ethnicity. I get the call. I was coming up to Vermont. I was going skiing. I was with my fianc . And now he’s in Swanton.”

(Dillon) Federal immigration officials maintain a detention center in Swanton in northwest, Vermont.

Attorney Holman was part of a panel of witnesses who briefed the state advisory committee on civil rights issues facing immigrants and refugees.

The committee gathers public input for the U-S Civil Rights Commission. And its focus on immigration comes as the face of Vermont is changing.

During the last two decades, more than 4-thousand refugees and asylum seekers from at least two dozen countries have moved here.

And then there are people who are here illegally, without the proper documentation.

(McCandless) “Agriculture is central to the Vermont economy. And I’m hear to tell you that that landscape is increasingly being produced, maintained and reproduced by largely undocumented, largely Mexican laborers.”

(Dillon) Sarah McCandless is a graduate student and a member of an Addison County organization that assists Mexican farm workers.

About 2,000 Mexicans work on the state’s dairy farms. McCandless says that because they lack driver’s licenses or proper documentation, they’re often stuck on the farm. It’s hard for them to leave to go to church or to the grocery store.

(McCandless) “They’re dependent on their employers, who are busy people, volunteers, or individuals who charge as much as $75 for a round trip to Wal-Mart.”

(Dillon) Committee member John Tucker from Burlington was shocked to find out that so many people are living underground and in fear of deportation in Vermont.

(Tucker) “For me to find out that there are almost 2,000 people who are here illegally and they’re not being helped, that they’re being denied freedom of movement. God! I’m a child of segregation and slavery in America. And what I heard was that same kind of thing, that police can restrict their movements. Sounds like South Carolina in 1951 when I was going to school there.”

(Dillon) Tucker said he wanted the committee to hear more from immigrants themselves, rather than the agencies that assist them. Committee Chairman Eric Sakai said the panel did try to get illegal immigrants to testify but that they were reluctant to appear.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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