Courts & Corrections

Activists seek release of dairy workers detained after march

Peche and Hernandez cropped
Esau Peche, left, and Yesenia Hernández lead a 13-mile march to Waterbury for “Milk with Dignity” on Saturday. The two were later arrested by immigration officials, according to Migrant Justice. Courtesy photo
ST. ALBANS — Immigrant workers and their supporters rallied at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Vermont field office Monday calling for the release of two Franklin County dairy workers arrested over the weekend.

Several of the activists were turned away when they tried to enter the building.

The two arrested Saturday were Yesenia Hernandez, 19, and Esau Peche, 26, according to the group Migrant Justice. They were returning from a Saturday march to the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury urging the company to support a program aimed at improving conditions for dairy workers, said the group, which organized the event. The couple were arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents near the town line in Franklin, said Migrant Justice

Both Hernandez and Peche are Mexican immigrants active in Migrant Justice, according to the group. Will Lambek, a spokesman for the group, declined to comment on their immigration status but said neither has a criminal record. He said the information the group has indicates the arrest was not related to criminal activity.

“What we know is that Border Patrol has a long and sordid track record of racial profiling, of discriminatory conduct and violating people’s rights,” Lambek said.

A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the arrests.

Lambek said the group is calling on the agency to drop any possible deportation proceedings against Hernandez and Peche, which he said officials have the discretion to do.

Abel Luna, another Migrant Justice activist, said Peche joined the group three or four years ago while working for a Franklin County dairy, helping organize workers to stand up for better conditions.

Luna said the arrests highlight the risk that Vermont’s roughly 1,500 unauthorized immigrant workers face anytime they leave the farms where they work.

“These are scare tactics to make us go back to the shadows and not organize, but this is only going to make our community stronger,” Luna said. “They’re going to detain leaders, and we’re going to fight back. We’ve proven that when we fight back as a community we can win.”

A handful of farmworkers active with Migrant Justice have been arrested during the past year, and some have later been released. Three of those who were detained and later released were on hand Monday, calling for the release of Hernandez and Peche.

Victor Diaz, Enrique Balcazar and Zully Palacios, all of whom still face deportation proceedings in federal immigration court, joined a small delegation of demonstrators who tried to enter the Citizenship and Immigration Services office building.

They were met at the door by two men who said they could not enter, because while it is a public building, people can go inside only if they have an appointment.

Lambek translated a message from Balcazar stating the group’s demand for Hernandez and Peche to be released.

One of the men barring the activists, who declined to give his name but said he was a supervisor, pointed at Balcazar, Palacios and Diaz individually, telling them they were trespassing and that it was a violation of the conditions of their release from detention.

He told them they would be rearrested if they didn’t leave, which they did.

Hernandez and Peche were being held separately in Vermont prisons as of Monday afternoon, according to Lambek, but based on past experience, they will likely be transferred to a federal detention facility in Dover, New Hampshire, until a hearing before an immigration judge in Boston.

Matt Cameron, a Boston-based attorney who has represented Migrant Justice activists in the past, is expected to argue their case, Lambek said.

The group intends to show public support for the release of Hernandez and Peche, as well as their strong ties to their community.

Vermont’s congressional delegation has previously written letters in support of members of Migrant Justice, calling for their release and for immigration court judges to drop deportation proceedings in some cases.

Diaz said the judge in his case read aloud a letter of support from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during a hearing on his deportation order, and Diaz said he believed it made an impression on the judge. Diaz had no further update on his case.

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