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Trump administration settles with Latino farm activists who said they were targeted over political work

Enrique Balcazar, of Migrant Justice, an advocacy group representing immigrant farmworkers in Vermont, speaks to a crowd outside the federal court in Burlington, Vt. (Lisa Rathke/AP)

The Trump administration has settled a high-profile lawsuit with three Latino activists, who had sued the agency after being arrested for deportation because of, they say, organizing they did with other farmworkers for better working and living conditions.

As part of the settlement, the Department of Homeland Security has agreed to pay $100,000 to the three activists and Migrant Justice, the advocacy group they were working with, and to grant them deferred action, effectively stopping their deportation cases and allowing them to obtain work permits.

The agency must also distribute a memo about the First Amendment — which protects undocumented workers from being targeted for political speech — to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office in Vermont, where the workers had been arrested.

The move brings the 2018 lawsuit to a close, one of a handful of cases where people arrested for deportation said they had been targeted because of their politics in the heated debate about immigration in recent years.

The settlement’s text includes a stipulation, as settlements often do, that the government’s move is not “an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States of America.” But one of the plaintiffs, former dairy worker Jose Enrique Balcazar Sanchez, 27, said the agreement indicated otherwise.

“We know that’s what they’re going to say,” Balcazar Sanchez said in an interview. “But we’ve exposed, through this action and through this lawsuit, the abuses they’ve committed: retaliatory arrests against community leaders.”

The federal government responded to the lawsuit by denying the majority of the workers’ claims, according to court documents, saying that the government’s work was lawful at all times and supported by probable cause when necessary.

DHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The case involved Migrant Justice, a small worker advocacy group based in Vermont that drew high-profile attention to a campaign for better working conditions for dairy workers called Milk With Dignity. Perhaps the group’s biggest win was extracting concessions from ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s in 2015.

Migrant Justice was also involved in campaigns against immigration authorities, including a years-long campaign beginning in 2012 for Vermont to create a “Driver Privilege Card” that allowed Vermont residents to drive legally in the state if they were undocumented.

That campaign was ultimately successful, but the state’s motor vehicle agency began sharing some information about suspected undocumented residents with immigration authorities, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleged that Immigration and Customs Enforcement began targeting and surveilling Migrant Justice beginning as early as 2014.

One of the other plaintiffs, Jose Victor Garcia Diaz, another former dairy worker who had been pictured in a New York Times article about the group’s work, was arrested in 2016 shortly after returning from a labor rights conference in Los Angeles.

Zully Palacios Rodriguez, the third plaintiff, was arrested with Balcazar Sanchez after officials used a civilian informant to infiltrate Migrant Justice, according to the lawsuit.

ICE agents had noted that Garcia Diaz was a member of Migrant Justice in two internal documents around the arrest, the lawsuit said.

Overall, at least 20 members of the group were detained or arrested in connection with alleged immigration violations between 2016 and 2018, according to the lawsuit. The workers said the group was targeted specifically to “intimidate and chill” their rights to free speech and organizing.

According to internal DHS documents obtained by the workers and their legal team during the case, DHS officials had compiled information about the group in an intelligence dossier in 2017.

“Since the 2016 presidential election there have been numerous protest groups that have formed across the northern states in opposition to President Trump,” the documents stated. “It is opposition toward his immigration policies that place Customs and Border Protection personnel in the sites of most of these opposition groups.”

Of Migrant Justice, the intelligence report said, “They are still active in Vermont and for the past two years have been involved in a back and forth with ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s in trying to change the company’s attitude toward their farmworker’s rights.”

The workers reached a settlement with the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles this year. The DMV was named in the lawsuit for sharing information about the plaintiffs’ immigration status with federal immigration authorities. As part of its settlement, it agreed to anti-discrimination training and a set of policy changes to prevent that type of information sharing with ICE in the future.

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The plaintiffs in the lawsuit drew a high-powered legal team, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the National Immigration Law Center, and the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher law firm.

“The Constitution protects our freedom to defend human rights and that includes protecting the farmworkers in Vermont who organized and won driver’s licenses and created their landmark Milk with Dignity Program,” Leah Lotto, a lawyer with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, said in a statement. “Today’s settlement and victory for Migrant Justice shows how important it is to stand up against ICE’s wrongful actions targeting and detaining these and other activists fighting for equity in their communities.”

The lawsuit followed a pattern of arrests, advocates say, to silence activism and free speech.

In 2019, Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma, a metal worker, was arrested for deportation just days after surviving the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel construction site in New Orleans. Palma had raised safety concerns about the site before the collapse, his lawyers said — and the collapse was the subject of a federal safety investigation.

In New York, immigrant rights activist Ravi Ragbir has been fighting a deportation order after he was arrested as retaliation for his activism, according to a lawsuit he has filed. His arrest has drawn sharp criticism, including from a federal judge who said his treatment was more reminiscent of an authoritarian regime than the United States.

In the Vermont case, Balcazar Sanchez described the pall that the case — and the deportation order against him — had cast over his life.

“It’s been really hard to have to live through this, having this hanging over my head for the last few years. With the current administration — each time going to court, I wasn’t certain of my fate,” he said.

He said he hopes that federal immigration authorities have seen what happens when they step beyond the bounds of the law.

“That when they abuse us and try to trample on our constitutionally protected rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, we’re not just going to accept that,” he said. “We’re going to fight back.”