Vermont farmworkers petition ICE to drop deportation cases, citing Biden administration guidance

  • Migrant Justice holds a press conference in front of the Federal Building in Burlington on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. The group is seeking to halt deportation proceedings against 10 migrant farmworkers. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger VTDigger — Glenn Russell

Published: 6/21/2022 10:29:50 PM
Modified: 6/21/2022 10:29:29 PM

Ten Vermont farmworkers, with the support of Migrant Justice and some elected officials, are petitioning U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to close their deportation cases.

A group of Migrant Justice activists held a press conference outside the federal building in Burlington Tuesday morning to announce their petition. About a dozen held signs that read “ICE ya basta” — a Spanish saying that roughly translates to “enough is enough” — and “ICE hands off.”

All 10 men named in the petition are from Mexico and have lived in Vermont for years, where they’ve mostly worked on dairy farms. They were each arrested in 2018 or 2019, often while running errands, such as grocery shopping. Their cases were delayed during the Covid-19 pandemic, but now they are all scheduled for court hearings in the coming year.

Ismael Mendez-Lopez, 44, was arrested at a Walmart in 2019. He had driven to the store in Newport with two of his coworkers. One of them stayed in the car while the others went shopping. While Mendez-Lopez was in the store, he recounted Tuesday through a translator, he got a call from the coworker in the parking lot. Border Patrol agents had approached the car and promised “nothing bad would happen,” according to Mendez-Lopez.

They were arrested in the parking lot. Mendez-Lopez was released on a $3,000 bond, according to a Migrant Justice press release.

“Somebody saw that we were Hispanic, and they called Border Patrol,” Mendez-Lopez said.

Will Lambek, an organizer with Migrant Justice, said this was typical.

The arrests were “all based on racial profiling,” Lambek said Tuesday. “These are folks getting pulled over by Border Patrol for driving while brown. It’s Border Patrol seeing a group of guys go into a Western Union to wire money and approaching them just based on those factors.”

Orleans County, where Mendez-Lopez was arrested, is 96% white, according to census data.

But racial profiling doesn’t usually work as a legal defense against deportation, Lambek said.

The petition asks for prosecutorial discretion. It cites a 2021 policy memo from Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s secretary of Homeland Security, that told law enforcement agencies to use broad discretion in deciding which deportation cases to pursue. The memo instructed ICE and other agencies to prioritize cases in which a noncitizen “poses a current threat to public safety.”

The memo also states that deportation should not be used as retaliation for activism or against someone exercising their freedom of speech. It instructs prosecutors to consider “a noncitizen’s exercise of workplace or tenant rights” as a mitigating factor in a deportation case.

The petition argues that the 10 men do not have characteristics that would make them a priority for deportation, and as members of Migrant Justice, they have “significant histories exercising workplace and tenant rights” that ICE should consider.

Several speakers at Tuesday’s event drew connections between the current anti-retaliation policy and a 2018 lawsuit Migrant Justice brought against ICE, which alleged the agency targeted activists with surveillance, harassment and detention.

In 2020, ICE settled the case, and agreed to pay $100,000 in damages, to be split among the plaintiffs.

Since the lawsuit, “The attacks against our community are continuing,” said Jose Ignacio, who is not a party in the petition but who joined in Tuesday’s event.

“Particularly in the northernmost part of the state, people are scared to leave the farm,” Ignacio said through a translator.

Several elected officials attached their own letters to ICE in support of the petition, according to a press release, including Rep. Peter Welch, Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George and Lamoille County State’s Attorney Todd Shove.

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