Victories in Vermont farmworkers’ fight against deportations!

Migrant Justice is excited to announce a number of important human rights victories in recent months. Despite their role as essential workers, immigrant farmworkers are criminalized by the government and targeted for deportation. But through Migrant Justice, farmworkers are fighting back to stop their deportations and defend their community from attack.

Last summer, ten farmworkers whose detentions by ICE and Border Patrol in recent years put them in active deportation proceedings petitioned the government to close their cases. The “Migrant Justice 10” demanded that ICE stop their deportations on the basis of a new policy that Migrant Justice and other immigrant rights groups had won from the Biden administration. 

After years of ICE’s intentional targeting of community leaders and immigrant-led organizations such as Migrant Justice, advocacy efforts resulted in new federal guidelines that the “exercise of workplace or tenant rights . . . should be considered a mitigating factor” in deportation cases. 

While the policy has been put on hold by a legal challenge – with the Supreme Court expected to rule in June – the ten farmworkers have continued to call on the government to use its well-established discretion to close their cases. And they have not been alone: Vermont’s congressional delegation, state legislators, and others all wrote letters to ICE in support of the petition.

Now, after months of uncertainty, the first of the Migrant Justice 10 has stopped his deportation! José Ángel’s case was closed by an Immigration Judge, who acknowledged that he “is not an enforcement priority.” He will now be able to continue living and working – and organizing with his community – in Vermont, without fear of deportation.

José Ángel reacted to the news: 

“I’m so relieved to have my case closed; I can now rest easy, not living under threat of deportation. This would not have been possible if we hadn’t come together through Migrant Justice and petitioned ICE to stop our deportations. I hope with all my heart that my fellow community members get the same response to their petitions. Until that happens, we need to keep fighting together!”

José Ángel (center) and co-workers showing their support for Milk with Dignity

José Ángel’s case is the first of the Migrant Justice 10 to be decided, but it won’t be the last. Some of the remaining nine petitioners have had their next hearings postponed until 2024, while others expect a decision in the coming months.

THis tremendous victory against deportation is an inspiration to other farmworkers fighting for the right to remain. Migrant Justice member Wuendy Bernardo has lived with her family on a dairy farm in Vermont since 2014. Four years ago, she was being driven home from church when her car was pulled over by Border Patrol and Wuendy and her children were detained. Following her detention, Wuendy attended regular appointments with immigration authorities and complied with every order, but last summer – without warning – she was told by ICE that she must leave the country by April or she would be detained and deported.

Following the example of the Migrant Justice 10, Wuendy petitioned to stop her deportation. She received an outpouring of support: over 3,000 of you sent messages to ICE; elected officials backed her cause; and dozens of community members sent heartfelt letters attesting to Wuendy’s irreplaceable role in her community.

Several weeks ago, her petition received an additional boost: 67 state legislators sent ICE a letter urging the agency to cancel Wuendy’s deportation. The 11 senators and 56 representatives – led by Senate President Phil Baruth and Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski – cited Wuendy’s past testimony to the legislature about barriers in access to healthcare as an immigrant mother, adding: “Her work resulted in landmark legislation creating the Immigrant Health Insurance Program, which covers medical costs for pregnant people and children regardless of immigration status.”

While Wuendy’s petition remains pending, she is no longer at immediate risk of deportation. The April deadline for her removal has been waived and she will be allowed to remain with her family in Vermont for the foreseeable future. Wuendy shared:

“I’m calling on ICE to close my case and I’m hopeful that they will. I’m scared to be deported and separated from my family. My five children and two younger sisters have made their lives in this country. I want them to remain in school in Vermont, where they have more opportunities, but I can’t imagine them growing up without their mother here with them. I’m grateful for the support that I’ve received from my community, and now from these 67 senators and representatives. This inspires me to keep fighting and to do whatever it takes to stop my deportation.”

Wuendy and one of her children at a recent Milk with Dignity picket of Hannaford Supermarkets

As we fight to stop the deportations of immigrant farmworkers, Migrant Justice is also working to create policies that prevent immigration detentions in the first place – and to hold accountable those officials who violate the policies. 

In Vermont, as in much of the country, many immigrants end up detained and deported due to collaboration from local cops and courts. This well-documented practice – known in the community as “polimigra” – turns routine traffic stops and court appointments into life-altering moments, as collusion between local officials and federal agents results in people being turned over to ICE and deported.

Last year, Migrant Justice proposed and passed landmark legislation banning immigration arrests at Vermont courthouses and of people traveling to and from court appointments. And for years, we have been fighting to implement and strengthen protections for immigrants in Vermont’s “Fair and Impartial Policing Policies” (FIPPs). While these protections have proven largely effective, Trump-era loopholes in the FIPP have left the door open to police-ICE collaboration and placed immigrants at risk.

In 2019, Luis Ulloa was a passenger in a vehicle stopped for speeding by a deputy of the Chittenden County Sheriff’s Department. Luis and his cousin were going on a double date with their girlfriends to a local Applebee’s. The deputy called Border Patrol and held the car on the side of the road for nearly two hours to allow federal agents to arrive and arrest Luis. Luis was detained for months in an immigration facility before being deported to Mexico. 

Immigrant farmworkers rally outside the Chittenden County Sheriff’s Office in 2019 to denounce the Department’s collaboration in the Border Patrol arrest of Luis Ulloa

Following his deportation, Luis filed a discrimination complaint through the Vermont Human Rights Commission. Earlier this year, the Chittenden County Sheriff settled the claim with a financial payout to Luis of $25,000. While no amount of money can compensate for the trauma of deportation, this payment offers some measure of accountability and puts other police departments on notice that abuses will not be swept under the rug.

Accountability after the fact, however, is not enough. Migrant Justice remains committed to strengthening the Fair and Impartial Policing Policy by removing the Trump-era loopholes. In the case of Luis, for example, the Sheriff’s Office justified the deputy’s actions after the fact by claiming that he called Border Patrol because of suspicion of human trafficking. The current policy encourages such flimsy pretexts: this must end.

Through diligent community organizing, nine jurisdictions around Vermont (Winooski, Burlington, South Burlington, Shelburne, Richmond, Hartford, Norwich, Brattleboro, and the Addison County Sheriff’s Department) have adopted a stronger policy that closes the loopholes and truly protects immigrants from discrimination. Now a government committee is considering amending the policy for the entire state to do the same.

But this won’t happen without pressure. There is plenty of resistance from cops and state officials, which is why committee members need to hear your voice!

Take a minute to send a message supporting a stronger Fair and Impartial Policing policy that will get the “Polimigra” out of Vermont