A demonstration to mark a court settlement between Migrant Justice and U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was held in front of the Federal Building in Burlington on Wednesday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — Migrant Justice has reached a settlement with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, closing the federal lawsuit on retaliation that the migrant farmworker organization brought against the government agency in 2018. 

The agency will pay $100,000 in damages that will be split among the plaintiffs. In addition, it agreed not to deport the immigrant activists who sued the agency for retaliation.

Under the agreement, ICE will also instruct its officers not to target people who are exercising their First Amendment rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The settlement requires the agency to send a memorandum to all of its Vermont employees to explain “the obligations of this office to act in accordance with the First Amendment, including its commitment to not profile, target on account of, or discriminate against any individual or group for exercising First Amendment rights.”

The 2018 lawsuit alleged that ICE was surveilling, harassing and detaining Migrant Justice activists in a targeted way. 

The farmworker organization held a march to U.S. District Court in Burlington Wednesday, where the settlement was filed. That event included a man who wanted to get his car through the demonstration who wielded a knife.

Migrant Justice and its legal representatives are celebrating the agreement as a win for First Amendment rights, which ensures five freedoms — speech, religion, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. 

In court documents, the federal government denies most of the workers’ claims. ICE disputed the allegations that it had infringed on First Amendment rights.

“ICE does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make,” the statement said. “However, ICE does have an obligation to pursue a case against anyone claiming to be breaking our nation’s immigration laws. ICE does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”

Demonstrators rallied after the court settlement on Wednesday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

According to the agreement, the immigrant activists — Victor Diaz, Enrique Balcazar and Zully Palacio — will be granted deferred action that will allow them to remain in the United States and obtain work permits.

“With this agreement, ICE is admitting defeat,” said Balcazar, speaking in Spanish alongside a translator, “allowing myself and others to remain in the country and accepting that they cannot target people for speaking out and organizing. We want this to become a precedent so that other groups and community leaders can organize without fear.” 

Balcazar was targeted by ICE and then held in detention for 11 days.

“Both personally and organizationally, we have been deeply affected by this targeting. It has put more fear into our community. That’s why we have to be out demonstrating that we will not accept these abuses of power, that we will not stay silent,” he said. “We will keep speaking out to defend our rights.” 

Victor Diaz said the two years since the lawsuit was filed have been a long and difficult road. “But because of the support of the community and the tireless work of our lawyers, ICE finally agreed to sit down at the table and hammer out an agreement.” 

The lawsuit was also brought against the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles, which lists Commissioner Wanda Minoli as a defendant due to the DMV’s role in sharing information with ICE.

Many immigrant workers in the state applied for driver privilege cards, which enabled Vermont residents to drive in the state regardless of immigration status. The information-sharing was the focus of Vermont Senate hearings in 2017. 

According to the lawsuit, “In early 2014, the DMV began sending personally identifying information obtained from DPC applications to ICE and scheduling appointments to facilitate ICE arrests.”

A settlement was reached in January between Migrant Justice and the DMV “to ensure that this state agency will no longer be a party to deportations and the separation of families,” said plaintiff Enrique Balcazar.

The plaintiffs were represented by the ACLU of Vermont, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the National Immigration Law Center, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.

“Rights don’t mean anything if you can be punished for exercising them,” said Leah Lotto, senior attorney at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. Lotto added that ICE violated First Amendment rights of Migrant Justice members through a prolonged campaign of surveillance and monitoring. 

“This doesn’t end here,” Diaz said. “We will continue to fight for our rights.” 

A driver brandishes a large knife as he tries to drive through a demonstration blocking Elmwood Avenue in Burlington on Wednesday. The demonstration marked a court settlement between Migrant Justice and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and was held in front of the Federal Building. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A rally outside of the U.S. District Court today included a man who yelled at activists to get out of the way. The man opened his car door and leaned over the hood, holding a large knife, which he banged on the hood of the car. 

“Not everybody is going to like it, but we can’t be scared, and we can’t retreat,” Thelma Gomez of Migrant Justice said, after the demonstrators had moved to the side of Elmwood Avenue, allowing the man to drive his car through. 

Gomez called his behavior an example of what migrants in Vermont face when fighting for their rights.

This story was updated at 7:45 Oct 28 with comments from ICE.

Amanda is a graduate of Harvard University, where she majored in romance language and literature, with a secondary focus on global health. She grew up in Vermont and is working on a master’s degree in...