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Lawsuit Alleges Farmworkers Targeted For Activism With Surveillance, Informant

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Liam Elder-Connors
/
VPR
A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Burlington charges that the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles participated in a campaign to target activists for arrest and deportation.

Undocumented farmworkers in Vermont say they are being unlawfully targeted by federal immigration authorities for their activism on behalf of fellow migrants.

The allegations are laid out in a new federal lawsuit brought by Migrant Justice and several of its members.

Immigration activist Enrique Balcazar said at a rally Wednesday at the federal courthouse in Burlington that dozens of his colleagues have been arrested and deported, some solely because of their work on behalf of undocumented workers.

“In the past two years alone there have been over 40 community members associated with Migrant Justice who have been arrested by federal immigration authorities,” he said through an interpreter. “Many of them have since been deported, and in nine of these cases, we have clear evidence that these arrests were retaliatory, targeting people because of their involvement in Migrant Justice.”

"In nine of these cases, we have clear evidence that these arrests were retaliatory, targeting people because of their involvement in Migrant Justice." — Activist Enrique Balcazar

The suit seeks a court order halting what Migrant Justice says is unconstitutional harassment and surveillance. The group claims that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, used electronic surveillance and an undercover informant to track and ultimately detain and deport its members.

The lawsuit claims the actions violate Constitutional rights that apply to citizens and non-citizens alike. ACLU of Vermont attorney Lia Ernst said the targeting by law enforcement violates the farmworkers’ First Amendment rights to free speech, the right to free assembly and the right to petition government.

Constitutional rights “have been violated with abandon by ICE," Ernst said. "And they have not acted alone; we are suing also the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles."

Constitutional rights "have been violated with abandon by ICE. And they have not acted alone; we are suing also the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles." — Lia Ernst, staff attorney ACLU of Vermont

In Vermont, farmworkers and others are allowed to apply for a “drivers’ privilege” card from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Citing documents obtained under state public records law, the suit alleges that Vermont DMV routinely passed information from some of these applications to ICE.

And the lawsuit claims that federal authorities used a confidential informant placed within Migrant Justice to gather information.

“We have evidence and reason to believe that ICE recruited somebody involved in the community in order to infiltrate the organization, attending Migrant Justice events — both public and private — to gather information on the organization and its leaders,” said Will Lambek, the group’s spokesman. “And we have evidence of text messages between the informant and their ICE handler.”

"ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security." — Matthew Albence, ICE acting deputy director

An ICE spokesman said the organization does not comment on pending litigation. The spokesman also referred to a previous statement from Matthew Albence, now the acting deputy director of ICE, that said the agency does not target people for arrested based on their advocacy work:

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make," Albence said. "Any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible, speculative and inaccurate… ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.”

The Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

VPR's Liam Elder-Connors contributed to this report.

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