Jose Enrique Balcazar-Sanchez had to wonder what it meant that, on a cold, muddy March evening in Vermont, the four undercover agents surrounding him and his fellow activist kept calling him "Kike" (Kee-Keh). It was a nickname other organizers at Migrant Justice, the Vermont farmworker advocacy group Balcazar helped lead, called him; it was the name used by his parents, with whom he'd moved from Tabasco, Mexico, to work at the dairy farms.
According to the statement Immigration and Customs Enforcement later released, undercover ICE agents had pulled over Balcazar to arrest the other person in the car, Zully Palacios, who had overstayed her visa (Palacios was also a leader in Migrant Justice). "While making this arrest federal agents also encountered [Balcazar], who was also found at the time to be in violation of U.S. immigration laws," the ICE statement read. To Balcazar, this explanation appeared far-fetched. The ICE agents seemed to know exactly who he was. Balcazar says that, when he was taken to a detention facility, one of the arresting officers told the agents, "I've brought you a famous person."
Echoing the alarm raised by activists across the country, Balcazar has accused ICE of targeting him and Palacios directly in retaliation for their pro-immigrant, anti-ICE activist work. ICE maintains that Balcazar and Palacios were arrested and detained for breaking immigration law, but a new lawsuit brought by Migrant Justice alleges that the ICE office in Vermont engaged in a years-long campaign to surveil and infiltrate the organization in order to identify and target its leadership. The outcome of the lawsuit could have national ramifications for ICE, particularly if information comes to light about the degree to which the agency's leadership in Washington, D.C., was aware of the alleged ICE activity in Vermont.
"It is clear that ICE is trying to silence the voices of immigrants in Vermont," Balcazar says. Balcazar also says he has evidence that ICE targeted him and Palacios directly: When ICE arrested Miguel Alcudia, another Migrant Justice activist, months before Balcazar's arrest, Balcazar says agents told Alcudia, "Tell Enrique he's next." Additionally, Will Lambek, a spokesperson for Migrant Justice, says that a series of public records requests revealed that ICE had collected information on Migrant Justice leaders from the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles, and that agents had composed dossiers using this information and the leaders' social media presences.
Since President Donald Trump took office, immigrant activists and advocates across the country have accused ICE of targeting the Trump administration's political opponents. In the past two years, multiple prominent activists—"famous" people, like Balcazar, in the immigrant activist community—have been arrested; organizers and leaders have been deported and detained in New York, Colorado, and Washington state. But up until now, activists have struggled to prove that ICE has specifically targeted certain immigrants for arrest because of their activism: Like Balcazar and Palacios, other activists ICE has arrested across the country have also been in violation of immigration law, and many of the targeted immigrants have criminal records.
Now, Migrant Justice v. Nielsen, filed by Balcazar, Palacios, and two other Migrant Justice leaders in Vermont, will try to prove that ICE targeted activists for arrest not because of immigration status, but rather because of activists' criticism of ICE—free speech protected under the First Amendment.
"There's a well-established set of legal tests to determine when an action is taken for retaliatory means," says Josh Rosenthal, a staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. Even if officers can come up with a "legitimate" reason to arrest someone, Rosenthal says, it's still illegal to do so if the original motivation behind the arrest was a response to that person's activism. "Even if a public official would be allowed to do something for a legitimate purpose, that does not mean they're allowed to do something for an illegitimate purpose—like for the purpose of First Amendment retaliation," he says.
Rosenthal's organization, the NILC, is joining with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont and a collection of other advocates to represent Balcazar and the other Migrant Justice leaders in federal court. Together, the organizations will attempt to prove that ICE spent years surveilling Migrant Justice in an effort to counter the group's advocacy. What's "particularly important and disturbing" about the case, Rosenthal says, "is not only the targeting of Migrant Justice activists, but also the additional efforts that we allege ICE undertook to interfere with the ability of Migrant Justice and its members to exercise their First Amendment rights."
According to the lawsuit, these efforts were extensive. Starting under the Obama administration, the plaintiffs allege that ICE sent an informant to infiltrate and report on private Migrant Justice meetings, and that ICE and employees of the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles illegally colluded to share private information and exchanged racist emails and text messages (for instance, DMV employees sent ICE information on driver's license applicants who had "south of the border names"). On top of all this, ICE has arrested and detained nine different members of Migrant Justice since 2014. Activists have drawn comparisons to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's efforts to infiltrate and undermine domestic political organizations and activists, including Martin Luther King Jr., in the 1960s and '70s.
Asked for comment in response to Migrant Justice's allegations, a spokesperson for ICE responded that the agency does not comment on pending litigation. But he referred to a statement Matthew Albence, acting deputy director of ICE, has made on multiple occasions: "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. 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."