RUTLAND, Vt. (CN) – Immigrant advocates charged the U.S. government in court Wednesday with illegal surveillance and harassment done in retaliation for their work organizing farmworkers.
Represented by the law firm Gibson Dunn and the ACLU Foundation of Vermont, the group Migrant Justice formed almost 10 years ago to advocate for migrant dairy workers in Vermont.
“ICE has infiltrated Migrant Justice’s private meetings; targeted, surveilled, and engaged in disinformation campaigns to sow distrust among its members; and arrested and/or detained no fewer than twenty active Migrant Justice members, including the individual plaintiffs – each of whom played and continues to play a critical role in Migrant Justice’s advocacy,” the complaint states, using an abbreviation for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The group says federal targeting of its leaders and members began in at least 2014 when the organization was engaged in what would become a successful organizing effort for migrant workers.
As part of a larger pattern of suppressing immigrant activism nationwide, according to the complaint, ICE and the Department of Homeland Security used civilian informants, invasively monitored Migrant Justice’s members and mined their social media pages for information.
Migrant Justice says the government targeted, arrested and detained at leasts nine of its members in direct retaliation for their activism.
“We come to the U.S. from countries with histories of political repression and we thought that here our freedom of speech would be protected as we stood up to defend our rights,” Migrant Justice leader Enrique Balcazar said in a statement today. “It is clear that ICE is trying to silence the voices of immigrants in Vermont.”
The lawsuit alleges that the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles assisted ICE and DHS after the organization worked in 2013 to pass a law that allowed Vermont residents to obtain drivers licenses regardless of immigration status.
According to the complaint, public records show that the DMV sent personal information regarding individuals who applied for a Driver Privilege Card directly to ICE, which compiled dossiers on Migrant Justice leaders, including their social media pages and media appearances. The records allegedly show DMV workers shared the individuals’ information with ICE for discriminatory purposes, out of racial and anti-immigrant animus.
Those efforts have hindered Migrant Justice’s ability to advocate for workers in Vermont.
“ICE’s actions have chilled and continue to chill Migrant Justice’s ability to organize and advocate for migrant workers,” the complaint states. “Fewer members attend community assemblies, events, protests, and rallies.”
The lawsuit alleges that the arrests and detention are part of an alarming national trend of retaliation against immigrant rights activists. Since 2016, ICE has arrested no fewer than 20 high-profile leaders around the country.
“The federal government crackdown on political speech in Vermont is part of a national campaign to silence immigrants who criticize government officials and their policies.” said Leah Lotto, a senior attorney at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice in a statement. “Using their power to physically arrest and detain outspoken leaders is a shocking violation of our constitution.”
Representatives at Homeland Security did not respond to an email seeking comment.