ICE’s war on immigrant organizers in Vermont

March 22, 2017

Steve Ramey reports from Vermont on a campaign by immigration agents to detain some of the state’s leading labor activists--and the grassroots struggle to stop the Feds.

DONALD TRUMP claims that deporting immigrants will lower crime, but now we know what he thinks is a "crime": organizing to defend workers' rights.

In a series of raids reminiscent of the mass deportation of immigrant workers in the Industrial Workers of the World a century ago, the Vermont field office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has launched a war on organizers with one of the state's most prominent labor justice organizations: Migrant Justice/Justicia Migrante.

In the past week, ICE agents have abducted three members of Migrant Justice: Enrique "Kike" Balcazar, Zully Palacios and Alex Carrillo.

Balcazar is one of the main leaders of the organization's campaign to win access to driver's licenses for all Vermonters, as well as the Milk with Dignity campaign, which in 2015 forced Ben & Jerry's agree to a new code of conduct with migrant workers in its dairy supply chain--though the code has still not been implemented.

Palacios joined Migrant Justice last year, helped start a women's working group and was a prominent leader in the successful campaign that year to free Victor Diaz, a dairy farmworker who was likewise detained by ICE--under the Obama administration, it should be noted--in retaliation for his leading role in the Milk with Dignity campaign.

Immigrant rights activist Victor Diaz speaks to a protest against the arrests in Burlington
Immigrant rights activist Victor Diaz speaks to a protest against the arrests in Burlington (Migrant Justice)

Carrillo, a dairy worker, was detained by ICE on March 15 outside the Chittenden County courthouse, where we was scheduled to have charges dropped for an erroneous DUI charge. DUI checkpoints are a notorious police tactic to entrap undocumented immigrants who are forced to drive without proper licenses and registrations.

Carrillo was abducted in front of his wife Lymarie Deida, an American citizen with whom he has a 4-year-old daughter. "When they arrested Alex," Deida said at a rally organized by Migrant Justice, "they took away a father, a husband, a human being." Prosecutors continued with the DUI dismissal even in Carrillo's absence.

Two days after Carrillo's arrest, Balcazar and Palacios were leaving the Burlington offices of Migrant Justice when they were "surrounded by four undercover ICE vehicles" and taken away, according to the organization's press release.

"Neither has a criminal record," the group noted in an online petition. "Their targeting appears to be political retaliation for their effective work in defending the human rights of workers and immigrants in this country."

Will Lambek, another Migrant Justice organizer, told Democracy Now! that when another of the organization's members was detained last year, he was told by arresting ICE agents, "'Tell your friend Kike that he's going to be next."

THESE ARRESTS are a clear effort to disrupt human rights organizations and instill fear into the immigrant community of Vermont, but they have also been met with immediate resistance.

Migrant Justice swiftly mobilized the night that Enrique and Zully were arrested, organizing rallies of 80 people outside an ICE field office in St. Albans and, later that night, 30 people outside the ICE hub in Williston, where organizers saw the vehicles that had abducted Enrique and Zully.

Twelve hours later, on Saturday, around 500 people marched in Burlington, chanting "Not one more," "Vermont will fight for immigrant rights," "¡Si se puede!" and "ICE escucha, Estamos en la lucha."

Victor Diaz, who was himself freed from ICE detention by a large grassroots campaign last year, told the crowd, "I'm so amazed to see the support of all of you out today, united, to confront this storm that the Trump administration has brought down upon us."

Migrant Justice organizer Abel Luna said: "We are facing difficult times with the change of government. But we have been facing very difficult times since early 2008, when this deportation machine began with Obama. Now Trump is inheriting this machine, so it's not new. We know how to fight back, and we're going to continue to do so."

Migrant Justice coordinating committee member Miguel Alcudia talked about Zully Palacios:

She went along with me and Kike and others to the Cosecha Movement National Assembly in Boston and talked about the immigrant community. She has been spreading the word and bringing the struggle forward. And when Zully got involved with this struggle, she knew the risk that she was taking on, but she didn't let that stop her. She went ahead and fought for the rights of the more than 1,500 migrant farmworkers who are living and working in this state.

Because when Zully learned about the abuses that are happening in our state's dairy industry, she said, "I need to put a stop to this. I'm going to get involved in the struggle, I'm going to raise my voice to be in solidarity because this cannot continue!" Now she needs you to stand with her, to fight for her freedom. And not only for her freedom, but for the freedom of all immigrants unjustly detained in this state and around the country.

IN ADDITION to being a key leading organizer of Migrant Justice, Enrique Balcazar is a member of Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan's Task Force on Immigration, and he helped write pending state legislation on fair and impartial policing. His detention has spurred an outcry among many elected officials in the state.

Kesha Ram, a Democratic state representative and co-chair of the Task Force on Immigration, spoke at the Saturday rally and named a long list of state government officials against to the ICE abductions. Vermont House Speaker Mitzi Johnson tweeted, "The attack against members of our community is not the Vermont way. We must stand w/our fellow VTers. Our state is welcome to all." Even Republican state legislators have voiced their opposition.

This support is important, but we should be clear that our politicians' resistance to the Trump administration will last only as long as we are in the streets demanding it. We need to organize more rallies, marches and occupations to win the release of Carrillo, Balcazar and Palacios--and start taking back the ground that the last eight years of harassment, raids and abductions have taken from our communities.

In 2006, when Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, they tried to pass a bill to classify undocumented immigrants as "aggravated felons" and criminalize anyone who helped them enter or remain in the U.S.

This outrageous attack was beat when millions of immigrants and their supporters struck and took to the streets on May 1, and a movement for immigrant rights was born. That movement helped give the presidency to Barack Obama, but he betrayed us with unprecedented raids and deportations.

This year promises to see the biggest May Day actions across the country since 2006. In Vermont, Migrant Justice and other organizations are in the early planning stages of rallies and actions. The shape of what these actions take will be a key factor in building our resistance and showing that, as Victor Diaz says: "Together, we can melt ICE."

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