"a beacon of hope:" Our 2020 year in review

2020 has been a year of nearly unparalleled loss, pain, and struggle. We have felt this acutely at Migrant Justice: we mourn the death of beloved community member Durvi Martinez, who died of Covid-19 after being held for months in ICE detention and deported. Yet amid this year of darkness, the courageous organizing of Migrant Justice has been a beacon of hope, showing that even in the most difficult of times change is possible. In the past twelve months – despite the hardships – Migrant Justice has never relented, persevering to win a series of inspirational human rights victories.

Stopping Discrimination at the Vermont DMV: We began the year by settling an anti-discrimination lawsuit against the DMV, which for years had undermined the Vermont law (a law won by Migrant Justice) allowing immigrants access to driver’s licenses. The DMV had regularly collaborated with ICE, sending the feds lists with “South of the Border names.” Collaboration was so rampant that one ICE agent wrote to a DMV employee: “We’re going to have to make you an honorary ICE officer!” No longer. The settlement puts in place strong protections – backed up by training and an outside auditor – to prevent this type of harmful collaboration. Finally, immigrants in Vermont can freely exercise their right to access a driver’s license without fear of being turned in to ICE.

Passing “No Polimigra” Policies: Farmworker Luis “Chiri” Ulloa was deported after a sheriff’s deputy called Border Patrol following a traffic stop and turned him over to federal detention. The local department’s abuse of power was a flashpoint for our campaign to stop cops from collaborating with deportation agents. This spring, in the wake of Chiri’s deportation, Migrant Justice-led campaigns in towns across Vermont successfully passed and implemented the strongest policies in the country to keep cops out of the business of deportations. As farmworker leader Olga said when testifying on the issue: “The only wall we should be building is the wall between police and ICE.”

Securing Millions in Relief for Immigrant Families: When the coronavirus began to sweep the country, farmworkers were recognized as “essential workers.” Despite the risk, their work never stopped. Yet many of these same workers have been cruelly excluded from governmental response to the crisis, including from the federal stimulus. We responded to this hypocritical exclusion by proposing that Vermont create a state fund to support those left out. After months of fighting – including raising and distributing nearly $250,000 in direct aid ourselves as a challenge to the state – we were successful: Vermont created a $5 million fund to cover every immigrant family in the state excluded from federal support.

Two Years of “Milk with Dignity:” This fall we released a report documenting the transformational successes in the first two years of Milk with Dignity. Our worker-led human rights program has invested over $1 million directly in workers’ wages, bonuses, and working conditions and has guaranteed labor and housing rights through a worker-authored Code of Conduct. On the report’s release, farmworker Adrian spoke about the program’s impact:

I used to work on a farm outside the program, where we worked 12 hour days without breaks for food, and where ten of us lived in a trailer infested with bed bugs. When the pipes froze in the winter, we would spend days without running water. Since I moved to a Milk with Dignity farm, everything is better: the pay, the hours, there’s enough space for all of us in the house and we aren’t cold in the winter. I want all farmworkers to be able to work in the conditions that I have now.

 Standing Up to ICE – And Winning: We ended the year with another legal victory: a groundbreaking settlement in our First Amendment lawsuit Migrant Justice v. ICE. We had sued ICE in response to the agency’s campaign of targeted retaliation against Migrant Justice, which included infiltrating the organization with an informant, physically and electronically surveilling our activities, and arresting dozens of members. In the settlement, ICE acknowledges that all immigrants – regardless of status – are protected by the First Amendment. The agency must instruct its officers not to target people for exercising their freedom of speech and assembly. And the Migrant Justice members who filed the lawsuit after being detained will be allowed to remain in the country where they can continue to fight for justice and human rights; ICE will drop their deportation cases. 

Celebrating this momentous victory, plaintiff Victor Diaz addressed a crowd outside the federal courthouse: “ICE tried to terrorize us by going after our leaders. They tried to divide us by going after our organization. They tried to silence us, but with this settlement we are saying that we will not be silenced!”

Each of these victories was made possible by the powerful, grassroots organizing that has made Migrant Justice such a transformative force over the past decade. Immigrant farmworkers in Vermont have come together to defend their human rights and have set precedents inspiring other communities to do the same. Migrant Justice’s organizing has been indispensable over the past four years, but the work doesn’t end with a change in the White House. As leader Thelma Gómez said announcing the recent ICE settlement, “We know that change will never come from the top, it has to come from the people.”

Immigrant farmworkers will continue to lead but cannot do it alone. These victories were won by the thousands of supporters who have contributed time, energy, and money in this fight for human rights. In the coming year, we will focus our efforts to expand Milk with Dignity, bringing the transformational program to hundreds more workers.

We invite you to join us in bringing about the next round of victories by making a donation today.