Vermont, with its green pastures and farmlands, is known for its support of the workers’ rights movement, particularly advocacy for its migrant workers.
On Monday, that advocacy is expected to be on full display in Boston as hundreds are predicted to protest the detention on immigration violation charges of two well-known Vermont activists, who have won the support of the state’s congressional delegation and thousands who have signed petitions on their behalf.
“The support from the public has been overwhelming,” said Will Lambek of Migrant Justice, a workers’ rights organization in Vermont, who said hundreds of supporters representing similar groups across New England plan to rally Monday, when the two are scheduled to appear at a court hearing in Boston.
The activists, Zully Palacios, 23, and Enrique Balcazar, 24, are community organizers with Migrant Justice, leading to accusations by some advocates that they were targeted. They do not have criminal records, which makes an immigrant a priority target for arrest and detention by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The two were taken into custody on March 17 by ICE agents after leaving the Migrant Justice office in Burlington, Vt., and are being held pending a custody hearing Monday in immigration court in the JFK Federal Building.
Their lawyer, who plans to argue that they have strong ties to the community and are not flight risks, questioned why they were arrested.
“If [ICE] is trying to send Migrant Justice a message, we’re sending a message right back: that you can’t do this to migrant workers and activists for speaking out,” Matt Cameron said.
Palacios had overstayed a visa by about eight months, but such violations rarely attract the firepower of the US Department of Homeland Security, Cameron said. Also, she has been held without bail, which he said is unorthodox for such a violation.
Balcazar, who is being held in lieu of $14,000 bail, is in the country without authorization, though ICE officials had known he was here for at least several months, Cameron said.
His clients are not considered safety threats, Cameron said.
“There is nothing about [Balcazar and Palacios] that make them a priority,” he said. “The bigger concern is ICE retaliation against political speech and organizers.”
Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for ICE, confirmed in a statement that ICE arrested two people in Burlington, Vt., on March 17 for immigration violations — an unidentified woman for overstaying her visa, and Balcazar, who was with her and was in violation of immigration laws.
Neudauer would not elaborate on their cases, except to say that both “are in ICE custody pending removal proceedings.”
He denied, however, that ICE would target an activist group.
“Both are lawful arrests,” he said. “ICE routinely targets criminal aliens and people who overstay visas by a significant period of time. If we encounter others along the way who also have immigration issues, regardless of their criminal history, they can be subject to arrest at the time of the encounter.”
The arrests have sparked protests and rallies throughout Vermont. More than 10,000 people have signed a petition questioning the arrests, said Lambek, of Migrant Justice.
The movement also has the support of that state’s congressional delegation.
US Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent, sent a letter to Chris Cronen, director of ICE’s Boston field office, which oversees Vermont, asking him to use prosecutorial discretion in the case of Balcazar and Palacios, noting their advocacy work and lack of criminal records.
“It is unclear why these two individuals would possibly be considered enforcement priorities, even under President Trump’s executive order on enhancing immigration enforcement,” Sanders said in the letter.
Following on a campaign promise, President Trump has vowed to strengthen the enforcement of immigration violations, including the targeting of those who violate civil immigration laws, worrying immigrant and workers’ rights advocates who fear that he will target activists and community organizers.
They point to the arrest early this month of Dany Vargas, a 22-year-old undocumented immigrant who was apprehended shortly after speaking about her deportation fears at a rally in Mississippi. She faces deportation proceedings, though she does not have a criminal record.
In Vermont, local advocates also protested the arrest more than a week ago of Alex Carrillo, outside a local courthouse in Chittenden County. The 23-year-old farm worker, who had also been involved in Migrant Justice advocacy work, had gone there to resolve a drunken-driving arrest, but before he could do that, he was apprehended for being in the country illegally.
Cameron called Carrillo’s case another example of an immigrant involved in advocacy work being prioritized for arrest, even though he does not have a violent record.
Balcazar and Palacios have been involved with the Milk with Dignity Campaign, which aims to improve workplace conditions on dairy farms, in addition to Migrant Justice, which was formed seven years to ago in response to the workplace death of a 19-year-old migrant worker on a dairy farm.
Balcazar recently served on Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan’s Immigration Task Force formed to review the state’s immigration policies. He is slated to speak at Harvard University on April 1, and Cameron, his lawyer, hopes to have him released from detention by then.
Lambek said ICE’s enforcement policies appear to be an attempt to “create a climate of fear, instability, and persecution, where people feel so vulnerable they are unable to defend their rights and would accept conditions they otherwise would not.”
But, he said, “These sort of attacks against Migrant Justice leaders will have folks double down on their commitment and continue to show their faith to stand up for what’s right for community and justice.”