Ellen Schwartz on the arrest of human rights defenders José Enrique Balcazar Sanchez and Zully Victoria Palacios Rodriguez



by Ellen Schwartz

On March 18, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers arrested human rights defenders and community leaders José Enrique Balcazar Sanchez and Zully Victoria Palacios Rodriguez as they were on their way home from a meeting in Burlington. Balcazar and Palacios are active leaders with the human rights organization Migrant Justice, and are the second and third immigrant workers to be arrested last week. Cesar Alexis Carrillo Sanchez was arrested last Wednesday outside of the Edward J. Costello courthouse in Burlington. He was on his way to a dismissal hearing stemming from a 2016 arrest. His charges were dismissed while he was in ICE custody. In addition to Balcazar, Palacios and Carrillo, two other Migrant Justice leaders have been arrested by ICE within the past year.

The arrests of Balazar and Palacios were politically motivated attacks on community leaders who have fought tirelessly to defend and advance the rights of Vermont’s immigrant community. Within the past six months, ICE agents informed other arrested Migrant Justice leaders that Balcazar was in line for arrest and deportation. Migrant Justice informed Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders of these threats.

Balcazar has lived in the state since 2011, when he began working as one of laborers in Vermont’s iconic dairy industry. He joined Migrant Justice in 2012 and helped to lead the successful campaign for driver’s licenses for all Vermont residents. He has represented farmworkers at numerous national gatherings and coalitions and has received an invitation to speak at Harvard University on April 1 about the Milk with Dignity Program, which is designed to ensure that farms in the dairy supply chain meet human rights standards in the treatment of their workers. Ben & Jerry’s promised to implement this program in 2015 after Balcazar helped lead a grassroots campaign. At the time of his arrest, Balacazar was involved in building support to call on Ben & Jerry’s to follow through on its 2015 commitment, which has yet to be implemented. Not coincidentally, the two Migrant Justice members arrested last year — Victor Diaz and Miguel Alcudia — were also Milk with Dignity campaign leaders.

Zully Palacios is an active member of Migrant Justice who has participated in Migrant Justice assemblies, learning about the reality that dairy farmworkers face in Vermont. Since 2015 she has led presentations, participated in an immigrant women’s group, and shared know-your-rights information with the immigrant community. She also participated in the campaign to secure a commitment from Ben & Jerry’s to join the Milk with Dignity Program.

While it is no surprise that ICE refutes claims that these arrests were politically motivated, Attorney General TJ Donovan’s choice to defer to ICE’s “purview” is shocking and disheartening. In a VTDigger article published on March 21, Donovan states that ICE is “well within their purview,” and that he does not believe the arrests of these Migrant Justice leaders were politically motivated. Unfortunately, Donovan came to ICE’s defense without the facts. ICE has been surveilling and targeting human rights defenders these past weeks in Mississippi, New York, Seattle and Texas. Does Donovan truly believe that the Trump administration is above such activity, and that ICE and the Border Patrol wouldn’t carry out Trump’s hateful and racist orders?

In an era when the president of the United States casually refers to immigrants as criminals and “bad hombres,” attempts to ban people from seven majority Muslim countries, and pursues a ruthless immigration policy that tears apart hard-working families and communities, we should expect more from an elected leader like Donovan. Regardless of ICE’s “purview,” Donovan should condemn these arrests, not tacitly justify them.

Given Balcazar’s willingness to be a high profile spokesperson, his arrest in particular is designed to sow fear within the immigrant community, pushing workers into the shadows where they are susceptible to exploitation and abuse. Left unchallenged, the perception of reprisal surrounding his arrest will create harmful ripple effects for undocumented workers, and indeed for all people exercising free speech rights in support of vulnerable groups, not only in Vermont but across the country. TJ Donovan’s comment serves to normalize an attack on Vermont residents who deserve human rights protections not only as workers or immigrants, but as human beings.

Donovan may lack legal authority in this matter, but his voice as an elected leader of Vermont’s law enforcement agencies is critical. His refusal to openly criticize ICE’s actions is unacceptable. In a galling twist of irony, Balcazar sits on the attorney general’s immigration task force, yet Donovan is unwilling to go to the mat for him and for the rights of immigrants when they are arrested and threatened with deportation. Donovan’s position sends a chilling message to immigrants in Vermont: Stand up for your rights, and the attorney general’s office will leave you out in the cold.

With the rhetoric and executive orders coming out of Washington, the need for elected officials to take bold, daring positions in defense of human rights has never been greater. Staying within the politically neutral comfort zones of symbolic bills and feel-good press conferences will not do. Nor will standing aside because, technically, no state law enforcement was involved or excusing inaction because this is a federal issue. This is a Vermont issue, involving the unjust treatment of Vermonters by a federal law enforcement agency whose functions our elected leadership has refused to have local officials carry out.

As a human rights organization, the Vermont Workers’ Center sees an attack on anyone in our communities as an attack on all of us. We should all be outraged. We are talking about the imprisonment and deportation of human beings: friends, partners, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. It is time to fight back, and we need people like Attorney General Donovan to become true champions of the rights of all Vermonters.

The clock is ticking, Mr. Donovan. Defenders of immigrant workers’ rights are under attack. On which side of history will you stand?