ICE came for us and the community stood up
On May Day in Burlington, Vermont, immigrant farmworkers organized through Migrant Justice led a boisterous march of hundreds through the city streets. The protest stopped at Ben and Jerry's flagship scoop shop to demand that the corporation, which claims to have a social justice mission, sign a contract ensuring fair wages and working conditions in the state's dairy industry--the centerpiece of Migrant Justice's "Milk with Dignity" campaign.
The protest also stopped at the city's Federal Building to protest Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) detention of immigrant leaders. Four recent detainees, Victor Diaz, Enrique "Kike" Balcazar, Zully Palacios and Miguel Alcudia bravely spoke out about their struggle for justice.
Migrant Justice has spearheaded a movement of immigrant workers over the last decade. It won driver's licenses for immigrants in 2013 and waged successful campaigns to stop the deportation of many immigrant leaders. In retribution, ICE this spring arrested three leaders of the struggle: Kike and Zully, along with Cesar Alexis Carrillo Sanchez.
A wave of protest, petitioning and legal efforts won the release of Kike and Zully, but Alex was unable to secure his freedom. He remained imprisoned and separated from his daughter and his wife, Lymarie Deida, who is an American citizen. The trauma of her husband's arrest likely caused her miscarriage of the couple's expected second child. Under duress, Alex agreed to "voluntary departure" from the U.S. and was deported to Mexico on May 8. He is applying for readmission to the country based on the fact that he is married to a U.S. citizen.
Enrique “Kike” Balcazar and Zully Palacios sat down with SocialistWorker.org's Ashley Smith and Migrant Justice's Will Lambek, who translated the interview, to discuss the struggle to stop the assault on undocumented workers in Vermont and across the U.S.
ICE RECENTLY detained and jailed both of you, as well as your fellow activist leader Alex. What happened?
Kike: ICE arrested Alex on March 15 on his way to a court appearance for a DUI charge. This signaled to us all that ICE was preparing a major escalation of attacks on us as leaders of our community, and that we had to respond. We immediately started planning a public campaign for Alex, his wife and their daughter.
Two days after his arrest, we were in the office of Migrant Justice, developing our campaign as well as plans to educate our fellow farmworkers about their rights when confronted with ICE. After that meeting, Zully and I were driving home when we realized that an undercover ICE agent was tailing us in an unmarked car with Massachusetts plates.
They turned on their lights on and tried to stop us. I didn't have any space to pull over because there was a lot of traffic, so I kept driving in search of safer place to park.
Then, all of a sudden, an undercover van pulled in front of me and closed down the whole road, scaring a lot of people. Then the car with the Massachusetts plate and another one pulled up behind me.
Four agents jumped out of their van and cars. Two came up to Zully's side of the car, and two came up to mine. They pulled open up the doors of our car and started yelling at me to turn off the car.
I asked them who they were and if they had an arrest warrant for us. All they said was turn off the car. Then they pulled Zully and me out of the car, calling both of us by our names. They clearly knew us and had been planning this for a while. They put us in different vehicles and brought us to an ICE building in Williston, Vermont.
This was unusual--they normally detain people at the St. Albans office. They held us in Williston for four or five hours while they processed us. We kept demanding our right to speak with a lawyer. But they refused until they finished processing us.
Then they brought me to prison in Swanton, Vermont, and took Zully to a facility in South Burlington. After that, they put us in the ICE detention Center in St. Albans and later transferred us to a prison in Stratford, New Hampshire, where they held us for nine days.
There, we found my friend and cousin, Alex. We also met a lot of people who had also been detained. We got to know people who New Hampshire state troopers had pulled over for traffic offenses and then arrested because of their immigration status. Many of them had no criminal records, and some of them had been held as many as 10 months without knowing what was happening with their process.
Being locked up made us feel weak and powerless. It also made us fearful that there would be more attacks against the community and more retaliation against us all for standing up for our rights. We were heartbroken at first.
But then we heard about all of the organizing happening in Vermont and across the country in our defense. We found out that our community was worried about this direct attack on its leaders.
People told us about marches for us up and down Vermont--in Montpelier, Burlington and Brattleboro. That was inspirational, and it gave us strength and confidence in our fight for justice in the run-up to our court hearing in Boston on March 27.
Activists turned up to that in large numbers, bringing with them thousands of signatures on our petition on the Migrant Justice web page. All of this showed to the judge that our community and our allies were united behind all three of us.
He realized that Zully and I weren't a danger to other people because we didn't have criminal record, and that we could go out on bail. So he gave each of us a $2,500 bond and let us go.
We got back to Burlington and were welcomed with a party celebrating our release at the office of Migrant Justice. We were so happy to be back here in the community and get back to our organizing on the farms. But we were also really sad at the same time, because Alex wasn't freed.
WHAT HAPPENED to Alex? Why has he not been able to win his freedom? What will happen to him and his family?
Kike: He's still in jail and they are set to deport him in what's called a "voluntary removal." It is a terrible injustice. He made an error, right? He was arrested and charged with DUI.
But like any other good person, he took responsibility for his actions. He agreed to go to driving school, and was on his way to court to settle his DUI charge. In fact, the court dismissed his DUI charge the day of his arrest.
So he didn't even have a criminal record. That alone discredits the entire basis of his arrest, detention and deportation.
He was being very responsible in handling all of this, but ICE didn't recognize that and used the DUI charge as an excuse to deport him. That's the climate we're in now--if you mess up once, ICE arrests you, separates you from your family and your community, and takes you away from the place that has become your second home.
So Alex has been deported from the U.S. With the help of his lawyer, he is going to apply for admission back to the U.S. based on his marriage to his American-born wife, but it's unclear if he will find a way back in. This is just terrible for him and his family.
Zully: It's really sad. What's even worse is that Alex is not alone. He is one of countless immigrants facing similar injustices done to them. In jail, I met women who are innocent or have committed just minor traffic offenses who are facing deportation. Many were mothers who are working to provide a better life for their children.
But instead of opening opportunities for them, this country puts obstacles in their path. What we need are opportunities, because as human beings, we all have the same desire to live a better life. But that's not what the Trump administration wants for any of us.
Alex came here to make a better life for himself. He and his wife want the same for their 4-year-old daughter who was born here. And he wants to provide for his family in Mexico. A DUI charge shouldn't result in your being separated from your wife and your 4-year-old daughter, and it shouldn't result in your deportation.
But we have an administration that's using anything as an excuse to deport immigrants without caring about the consequences and the psychological impact on children. This will cause irreparable harm. No law, no policy in the future will be able to make up for that.
Alex's daughter is struggling to comprehend this injustice done to her father. All she can grasp is that she lives in a country that takes parents away from their children. This is just terrible, but it is now commonplace across the country.
ALL OF this sounds like a deliberate political attack on the leadership of the immigrant rights movement in Vermont. Is that what is going on?
Kike: There is no doubt that this is a targeted attack on the farmworkers' movement in the state. They have been targeting immigrant leaders for the last couple of years because we have been so active and public.
This has been building under the Obama administration, and now it has intensified under Trump. Last year, ICE arrested one of our other leaders, Victor Diaz. But we won his freedom through protests.
Then they arrested Miguel Alcudia last September, when he was on his way to his bank after leaving his farm. We waged another campaign and won his release. When Miguel got out, he told me that ICE agents said that I would be the next person to be arrested.
They were targeting me because I was speaking out publicly against ICE for violating Victor's rights when they arrested him and agitating for immigrant workers rights in the Milk with Dignity campaign. I took precautions right away. I talked with my lawyer.
We also suspected that they would target Zully. She is a community leader who works with women and also helps with our TV show "Swimming Against the Current."
When they arrested us, remember, they called us by our names. That proves we were being targeted. This is happening across the U.S. The Trump administration is using ICE to conduct political attacks on the leaders of the immigrant rights movement.
They are going after outspoken Dreamers, who are supposed to be protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But now they are detaining and deporting Dreamers and students who have work permits who have done everything by the book. This administration is ripping up promises and violating our rights.
Zully: What Kike says is right. But we should remember that when they come after those of us who are spokespeople for our community, those who are demanding our rights, it shows that they're scared of us.
By arresting, jailing and deporting leaders, they want to intimidate the rest of the community and push us all back into the shadows. But that's not what's going to happen, because every time they've attacked a leader over the last couple of years in Vermont, the community has become more united and determined to stand up and fight.
May Day was about showing that even after our arrest and detention, we are unafraid and more determined to fight than ever before.
WHAT WERE the key things the movement did to win your release? How did Vermont's liberal Democrats respond to the attack? Did they come to your defense?
Kike: The community mobilization was the key, just as it was in response to Victor's and Miguel's arrests. We have an enormous network of activists in our community and throughout Vermont that we have built up over years of organizing. So when any of us are attacked, hundreds of people take to the streets to demand our freedom.
We have also let the politicians like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy know every time we've been attacked. We told them that they needed to take our side against ICE. They have come out sometimes in favor of the immigrant community.
But we need more from them. They need to take a stand to protect our community and to stop ICE from attacking us.
Some of the politicians didn't respond well. Vermont's Attorney General T.J. Donovan is one example. I was one part of a task force with him to review the "fair and impartial policing" policy toward immigrants. He knows me and worked with me.
But when I was detained, all he said was, "The federal government is well within its legal purview, and what they've done is legally permissible." He took a pass and didn't come to our defense.
We have to educate and push the politicians like Donovan to take better stands when it really matters. We have to come out of the shadows, speak out and defend ourselves. We have to continue to build the popular movement on the farms and in the cities so we can mobilize against attacks, win our rights and pressure the politicians to do the right thing.
WHAT IMPACT has the repression of the immigrant leaders had on organizing on the state's dairy farms?
Zully: The first impact was fear--the fear of not knowing what could happen. But that then changed when we all saw how many people in Vermont and across the country were behind us. That was a demonstration of strength, solidarity and unity.
It made us all believe that we have to leave our fear behind and speak out, and that if we do, we'll find support for our struggle. The worst thing we can do now is stay home, hide and remain silent.
May Day proved that many farmworkers think the same thing. We turned out because we felt protected by the larger community in Vermont. We knew that they had our backs. We know how much support there is for the rights of dairy workers.
So ICE's intimidation won't work. It won't stop us because we are here, and we're going to continue fighting. We showed that we don't have to be afraid, and that we can unite and use our collective power to fight for the well-being for our whole community.
Kike: With Trump in power, we are going to be seeing more and more violations of our human rights throughout the country. This is going to scare people and make them hesitate to speak out. So for us in Vermont, May Day was a way to demonstrate that we're here and we're going to keep demanding our rights.
ONE OF the concrete things you demanded at the May Day rally was that Ben and Jerry's live up to their promise to deliver what Migrant Justice calls "Milk with Dignity." What are you demanding and what has their response been?
Kike: We're demanding that Ben and Jerry's sign a contract for Milk with Dignity, which they had committed to two years ago. That agreement promised to ensure the human rights of the dairy workers in their supply chain in Vermont and the northeast, where they are get most of their milk for their ice cream.
Milk with Dignity would guarantee several things. First, it includes a code of conduct for working conditions. These worker-defined standards would guarantee dignity and respect on the farms. Second, it would provide worker-to-worker education services--to teach workers what their rights are and how to defend them.
Third, it would require enforcement by a bilingual, independent, third-party agency to make sure that Ben and Jerry's and the farmers live up to the contract. This is extremely important. Many other agreements do not have such an enforcement measure and therefore they exist on paper, but not in reality.
The fourth element is economic improvements for both farmers and workers. Ben and Jerry's and other large corporations are getting rich off the exploitation of dairy farmers and immigrant workers. This is at odds with Ben and Jerry's commitment to fair trade and social responsibility. They must change this and pay more to farmers and workers.
The fifth and final element is a legally binding contract. Without that, there is no way to enforce the agreement.
After much local and national pressure, Ben and Jerry's signed a commitment two years ago to implement the Milk with Dignity program in their Vermont supply chain. But ever since, all we've heard from Ben Jerry's is excuses, while all the violations of our human rights in the state and on the farms have only gotten worse.
So we were out on May Day to say that two years is two years too late, and we're demanding that they implement the Milk with Dignity program in their supply chain now.
AFTER ALL of the crackdowns and deportations under Obama and now their intensification under Trump, we clearly have a long struggle ahead for justice for undocumented workers. What are the key things for the movement to do?
Zully: We have to organize our collective power, and we must build solidarity between all workers, immigrants and those born here. We immigrants are fundamental to the economy of this country. If we were deported, the economy would crash.
But just because we're necessary doesn't mean that we should have our rights violated. We're human beings, too, and just like everybody else, we want to have better wages, better housing and have our rights respected.
The corporations and state want to pit us against one another. Our answer must be solidarity. American workers should not see us as an enemy, but instead see that our struggles are linked. If we can unite against discrimination against immigrants and against people of color, the workers' movement will be stronger overall.
Kike: Immigrant workers in this country shouldn't be afraid. We should unite and raise our voices. We all need to speak out against the government that is perpetuating these attacks against our community.
We have to build solidarity and break down the barriers between workers who are citizens and those who are immigrants. We have to come together and say that this country must live up to its promises to protect human rights and provide living wages for all of us, immigrant and citizen.