Feds deny targeting political activists

Enrique Balcazar, Zully Palacios

Enrique Balcazar, 24, from Mexico, and Zully Palacios, 23, from Peru, are both well-known advocates for human rights in the state of Vermont. Courtesy photo

BURLINGTON — Three activists with the group Migrant Justice, who were arrested last week for violating immigration law, continue to be held Monday at a detention center in New Hampshire, according to a group spokesman.

A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Friday’s arrest of two of those Migrant Justice activists resulted from authorities targeting one of them, a woman who had overstayed her visa.

Migrant Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont and local advocacy group Rights and Democracy have a different view and said ICE is specifically targeting political activists.

Attorney General TJ Donovan, who has been an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration, said Monday that last week’s arrests fell well within federal authority and that he saw no evidence that ICE was targeting activists.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, expressed concern on Twitter.

Shawn Neudauer, a public affairs officer for the Department of Homeland Security, said in a weekend statement that while arresting a woman who had overstayed her visa, agents encountered Jose Enrique Balcazar-Sanchez, who Neudauer said was “in violation of U.S. immigration law.” Neudauer did not disclose the woman’s identity.

Balcazar-Sanchez, who goes by Enrique “Kike” Balcazar, is a high profile activist with Migrant Justice. The group identified the woman who was arrested as Zully Palacios, 23, of Peru, who is also involved with Migrant Justice. Neudauer said the woman arrested had overstayed her visa by more than a year.

Both are being held by ICE pending deportation proceedings, Neudauer said.

Balcazar, 23, of Mexico, was a member of the attorney general’s recently created task force on immigration issues. Balcazar and Palacios have no criminal record, according to Migrant Justice.

Donovan said Monday that, based on published reports, ICE agents were acting “well within their purview” in arresting Balcazar, Palacios and another Migrant Justice activist Caesar Alex Corillo-Sanchez, who is also being held pending removal proceedings.

Migrant Justice, the Vermont ACLU and other groups held a Saturday rally outside the federal courthouse in Burlington to call for the release of those arrested last week, which drew a large crowd downtown.

The Vermont ACLU posted on Facebook asking its members to call Jeff Curtis, director of the ICE field office in St. Albans, and the ICE field office in Boston to demand an end to “targeted arrests of immigrant rights organizers.”

Donovan said he sees no evidence that ICE is targeting activists. The attorney general said he would not speculate about the agencies’ motivation until he has more information.

“I think for me the question is more about strategy in terms of the promotion of national security and public safety,” Donovan said.

New guidance on immigration enforcement priorities in an executive order from President Trump is overly broad, Donovan said, expanding the focus beyond violent criminals.

“I have concerns. That’s casting a very wide net. Specifically to Vermont, these migrant workers are a critical part of our agricultural economy,” Donovan said.

The attorney general said he was not aware of Balcazar’s immigration status, but welcomed him as part of the immigration task force he set up. “(Balcazar) was very compelling in his desire to be part of our community,” Donovan said.

Legislation championed by Donovan, S. 79, would limit state and local law enforcement’s ability to enforce federal immigration law, but it would have had no impact on last week’s arrests, he said.

“This was solely a federal action. There is no state action as far as I can tell,” Donovan said.

Will Lambek, with Migrant Justice, said on the radio program Democracy Now, that Vermont has a “rogue ICE agency” targeting leaders in the immigrant community.

Lambek previously told VTDigger that other people detained by ICE in Vermont had told Migrant Justice that agents were planning to target and arrest Balcazar because of his activism.

“It’s obvious that the local ICE office is looking to discourage immigrants in Vermont from organizing for their rights and dignity by attacking the only organization led by members of their community. They’re hoping to break the community’s spirit by targeting its leaders,” Lambek said.

Lambek said Monday all three Migrant Justice activists are being held at an ICE detention facility in Strafford County, New Hampshire. Carillo has bail set at $21,000, Balcazar has bail set at $14,000 and Palacios is being held without bail, according to Lambek.

Over the weekend, Vermont Senate Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, P/D-Chittenden, voiced concern about the ICE arrests on Twitter:

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, also responded to the arrests on Twitter:

Morgan True

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