Vt. ALCU director speaks in Bennington

BENNINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union is active in every state in the U.S., and Vermont is no exception. On Wednesday evening Vermont ACLU Executive Director James Lyall stopped by the Bennington Free Library to talk about some of the initiatives the group is involved with throughout the state.

Lyall became the state's 12th ACLU director when he took the reins from Allen Gilbert in 2016. He started his career advocating for immigrant children who were facing deportation in California, then from 2011 to 2016 he was a staff attorney for the ACLU of Arizona. While in Arizona he was part of the opening of the first ACLU satellite office in Tucson, in order to investigate and litigate civil rights issues related to the U.S.-Mexico border.

"(I came) to Arizona at the height of Sheriff (Joe) Arpaio's reign. SB 1070, the 'Show Me Your Papers,' law had just been passed, which was at the time the first and worst anti-immigrant state law in the nation," he said Wednesday night. "I saw firsthand what the ACLU could do. We beat Sheriff Arpaio, we got an injunction against his office and we drove him out of office. We succeeded in passing multiple local ordinances that really softened the blow of SB 1070, including in Tucson one of the best sanctuary city policies in the country. We did that through strategic litigation, policy advocacy, education, and community organizing, and saw what the ACLU can do when it brings all of those together and when we mobilize the community in support of an initiative."

The move to Vermont was something of a homecoming for Lyall, who went to college and has family in the Green Mountain State.

"I don't get to southern Vermont as much as I'd like to," he said, "so please keep inviting me and I'll keep coming back."

Lyall said that what he described as the Trump administration's attack on immigrants nationally has also played out in Vermont. He said that his organization works with Migrant Justice, who "have gotten a number of groundbreaking laws passed in the state, including drivers licenses for immigrants, including the sanctuary policy that is still being refined as we speak, which is good policy and is about to be statewide, binding law on all law enforcement agencies. That's been the work we've done with Migrant Justice as partners."

Lyall brought up the case of Migrant Justice, which has seen several of its leaders arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the last year and a half. After Cesar Alexis Carrillo Sanchez was arrested on his way to Chittenden County court over a DUI case that was eventually dismissed, Lyall said in a statement, "By targeting people charged but not convicted of any crime, Trump's deportation policy takes the legal principle that people are innocent until proven guilty and stands it on its head. This arrest isn't just an attack on the immigrant community — it's also an attack on the legal system itself."

"This is something that has been happening since the election," he said on Wednesday. "People speak up, undocumented people who are leaders in their community speak up, they are arrested and detained for deportation proceedings. This is really ugly stuff, stuff that you wouldn't expect to see in our country... Sometimes it seems like Vermont is separate from what's happening in the rest of the country, but it isn't."

He said one of his organization's other goals is criminal justice reform in the state, which he said has seen its imprisoned population double since the late '90s. "We think that a 50 percent reduction is not outside the realm of possibility," he said. "Moreover it would be better for individuals, for communities, for incarcerated individuals and their families, in that it can save human lives and taxpayer dollars if we are smarter about our criminal justice policy."

Furthermore, he said, no state in the country incarcerates black men at a higher rate than Vermont, and that people of color are pulled over two to three times more than white people, but are less often found with contraband. He praised Bennington State Representative Kiah Morris for introducing legislation that would create a K-12 diversity curriculum for Vermont's schools, which he said would teach students about more than straight, white experiences. "Nothing could have a bigger impact, in my view," he said.

The talk was presented by the Bennington Branch of the American Association of University Women, and was free and open to the public. More than 50 people were in attendance.

"AAUW's mission is to empower women and girls through education, advocacy, research, and philanthropy," said Bennington branch President Ruth Botzow. "Our branch focuses on lifelong learning and seeking opportunities for betterment."

About 30 minutes of Lyall's talk was a presentation, after which he took questions from the audience for almost an hour.

He encouraged those in attendance to continue to follow the ACLU's efforts, and to get involved however they can. "As scary and threatening and dangerous as these times are in many ways, its also a moment of tremendous opportunity," he said. "I don't know, in my lifetime, of any time I've seen so much political activism, including so much from people who previously did not identify as activists or really have any interest or engagement. There is a huge amount of engagement right now, and we really have to take advantage of that."

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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