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Is ICE Targeting Undocumented Activists for Arrest? Organizers Speak Out After 11 Days in Jail

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Are immigration agents targeting undocumented organizers for their political work? That is the question many are asking after three prominent immigrant rights activists in Vermont were jailed by ICE in what local organizers are calling a clear case of political retaliation. We speak with Enrique Balcazar and Zully Palacios, who were freed Monday after spending 11 days in jail. Both are leaders of the group Migrant Justice. They were arrested by undercover ICE agents in Burlington, Vermont, earlier this month as they were leaving the Migrant Justice office. Balcazar, who is known as Kike, serves on Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan’s immigration task force, which was created to respond to the Trump administration’s immigration policies. A third activist with Migrant Justice, Cesar Alex Carrillo, remains jailed after he was arrested by ICE earlier. We also speak with immigration attorney Matt Cameron.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Are immigration agents targeting undocumented organizers for their political work? That’s the question many are asking, after three prominent immigrant rights activists in Vermont were jailed by ICE in what local organizers are calling a clear case of political retaliation. Twenty-fou-year-old Enrique Balcazar and 23-year-old Zully Palacios were freed on Monday after spending 11 days in jail. Both are leaders of the group Migrant Justice in Vermont. They were arrested by undercover ICE agents in Burlington, Vermont, earlier this month as they were leaving the Migrant Justice office. Balcazar, who is known as Kike, serves on Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan’s immigration task force, which was created to respond to the Trump administration’s immigration policies. A third activist with Migrant Justice, 23-year-old Cesar Alex Carrillo, remains jailed. He was arrested by ICE outside a courthouse two days before Zully and Kike were arrested.

In a moment, we’ll go to Boston to speak with their lawyer, Matt Cameron. But first let’s turn to Kike and Zully themselves. On Thursday, I sat down with them, two days after they returned home to Vermont. I began by asking Zully Palacios about how long she spent in jail.

ZULLY PALACIOS: [translated] Eleven days. It was the 11 longest days of my life. I will never forget it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe the conditions of your detention, where you were held the longest and what it was like in that jail?

ZULLY PALACIOS: [translated] The first time, they took me to the jail here in Vermont. It’s a place where no human being should be, because you’re completely enclosed. It was a very small space. And it was practically torture, a psychological torture. I had no contact with anyone. I was captive there by myself, one tiny window, and just me in the darkness. It was horrible. I could hear these doors slamming all the time. I couldn’t see the other prisoners. I was without communication of any type.

AMY GOODMAN: Kike Balcazar, could you talk about your detention? You were held separately from Zully?

ENRIQUE BALCAZAR: [translated] Yes, unfortunately, it was really an attack against the communities, with the new administration of President Donald Trump. He’s really attacking the immigrant communities. What happened to Zully and myself and Alex, who is still in jail, was a very sad experience, the way they are persecuting the community and people who have no criminal records, who are merely defending our rights. We believe in the values of the United States. We believe in this country, and we have a beautiful community in the States.

From the moment they detained us, we were very nervous. We had no idea what was happening. At first, we didn’t know who these people were. We were terrorized, really. Then they separated us. I spent 36 hours in Swanton, where I had no contact. They wouldn’t let me make any phone calls until I could finally contact my lawyer, after demanding it. I wasn’t able to get through to him. Everything we went through there was very sad for Zully and myself. It was basically torture for us. It’s really sad what they are doing to innocent people there.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Kike, about the Milk with Dignity Campaign that you co-founded two years ago? How are you organizing? What have you been organizing around in Vermont?

ENRIQUE BALCAZAR: [translated] In Vermont, there is a united community. We work in the dairy industry. And we know that they are, like all over the world, in violation of human rights, things we really do not want to endure. So we organized, and we meet in the community, talk about the problems we are facing and issues of health and so on. So now we are in a campaign, which started based on community priorities, after having had meetings and doing inquiries in the community about what people wanted to do. We created the Milk with Dignity Campaign, which is to guarantee our human rights, to get human rights for dairy workers, in terms of wages, work hours and living conditions. We do hold the big companies responsible, because they are getting rich off of us, the immigrants in that state.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the companies that you have targeted is Ben & Jerry’s, based in Vermont. What has been Ben & Jerry’s response? And what are you demanding of them, Kike?

ENRIQUE BALCAZAR: [translated] After we learned about the successful model of the Fair Food Program in Florida, which guarantees human rights, which has won human rights for the workers, we identified with that. So we were able to identify the big companies in Vermont. Ben & Jerry’s is a big company, an ice cream company. And it was founded in Vermont and is known all over the world. They have a philosophy of social justice, which is good, but there were no protections for dairy workers, people working with cattle. So, two years ago, we started talking with them, and we had a meeting. In the beginning, it was really difficult to get them to the table. We started talking about immigration, worker and labor issues. Eventually, we had a campaign where we got them to sign an agreement to make the program of human rights a reality. It took two years, and we were still negotiating. But we would like them to sign a contract with us and to finish this and guarantee our human rights in Vermont.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel, Zully, that you were targeted because of your organizing, or simply because you overstayed your visa in the United States?

ZULLY PALACIOS: [translated] I am sure that they sought me out because of the work I am doing to defend human rights, and not for anything else, because what they wanted to do was get into the community and intimidate us that way. But they’re not going to succeed. We will never stop defending human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: There is discussion in Vermont of using prisoners to work on dairy farms, if immigrants, like yourselves, are being targeted. Can you respond to this? Can you tell us what the situation is, Kike?

ENRIQUE BALCAZAR: [translated] It’s really sad, everything that this administration has brought to the table. Talking about having prisoners work on the dairy farms is completely unjust to the people. They don’t deserve that. That’s labor exploitation. And that’s returning us to the times of slavery. So when we talk about protecting people, we have been working for years to keep this industry afloat. So it’s a completely unjust idea.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I wanted to ask you each—you are both now in removal proceedings. Will that affect your work, your organizing in Vermont, while you remain free? Let’s begin with Zully.

ZULLY PALACIOS: [translated] As I said earlier, having had this experience has made me stronger. And we will keep—I will keep working. I’m going to keep moving forward, for all of us, so that we can stay and be part of this community in the United States and this community in Vermont. Affects me, but in a positive way. I’m stronger for having been through this. I am not afraid, and I feel stronger. And I’m going to keep fighting until we win.

AMY GOODMAN: Your feelings when you were freed, Zully?

ZULLY PALACIOS: [translated] I felt very happy at that moment to be able to see my friends again and see daylight again, but I also felt very sad, because, in jail, I thought about—there were all kinds of great people, innocent people, who have been there for months and months, who don’t know what’s going to happen to them. So I felt sad for them, because I got out, but they’re still there. And when I left there, I wished they could have gone with me. So that makes me sad. So I felt—it was a mixture of sadness and happiness, because a lot of innocent people—parents, mothers—can’t see their children, and separating a family is terrible. They need to be free.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Kike Balcazar, if you could share your final message with people, especially other immigrants who might be watching and listening right now, about what this means and how people can protect themselves? And also, if you could comment on the solidarity that was expressed in your cases, both for you, who are both freed, you and Zully, and for Alex, who’s still behind bars?

ENRIQUE BALCAZAR: [translated] First of all, I want to give the number of Ben & Jerry’s. We still have not signed an agreement with them. I invite everyone to call Ben & Jerry’s and tell them that they have to sign that agreement with the dairy workers. I insist. The number is (802) 846-1500. So it would be a great show of solidarity with us if you would call Ben & Jerry’s and tell them to sign an agreement with us.

For my community, all over the country, fear is not an option. This administration is trying to force us back into the shadows. They are intimidating people. They are trying to make police collaborate with immigration. It’s completely unjust for us. So I ask the community, don’t give into fear. Let’s not be afraid. Let’s defend our rights. We want to be part of this community all over the country and defend our rights always. Let’s not lose faith. Let’s not lose hope. That’s my message that I want to send to all the Latin American compañeros all over the world. We are confronting very bad times in this country. And for sure, fear exists. But that’s not a barrier for us defending our rights and changing this.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Enrique Balcazar—his nickname is Kike—and Zully Palacios. We spoke to [them] on Thursday, just days after they were freed Monday, after spending 11 days in jail, as we go right now to Boston to speak with Matt Cameron, immigration attorney, managing partner of Cameron Law Offices in Boston, representing the Migrant Justice organizers.

Matt, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain what they’ve been charged with and why Alex Carrillo is still in jail.

MATT CAMERON: Thank you, Amy. Good to be with you.

These, I think it’s very important to understand, as in all removal proceedings, are civil charges. There’s no crime here. They’ve been charged with, respectively, in Zully’s case, overstaying a visa, and in Kike’s case, in being here without permission, and same with Alex. And Alex does remain in jail with no bond, due to a case that was dismissed in Vermont, that the Vermont State’s Attorney’s Office did not see fit to prosecute, in their prosecutorial discretion, withheld prosecution and actually allowed him to go free. And the federal government immediately picked him up, and he was denied any opportunity for bond after that.

AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible] reached out to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to ICE, to talk about the cases of Enrique and Zully and Alex and their arrests. The ICE spokesman for New England, Shawn Neudauer, said, ”ICE does not target individuals based on political beliefs or activism. The reasons for the recent arrests in Vermont have already been addressed publicly. On March 15 ICE officers arrested a 23-year-old Mexican national who was charged locally with a DUI and self-admitted to federal authorities that he unlawfully entered the United States. Two days later ICE arrested a female foreign national who surpassed the duration of a lawful visit by nearly a year; and another individual who was with her in the vehicle at the time, and who also has an active immigration violation. These were lawful arrests and conducted completely within ICE’s legal authority under federal law,” unquote. That’s the statement of ICE. Matt Cameron, if you could respond?

MATT CAMERON: That is the statement of ICE. But that forgets a long, long history in this country of political targeting of noncitizens and the use of the deportation system to achieve our ideological and political means. And I believe you can hear—my clients are perfectly capable of advocating for themselves. They just did. What we just heard is exactly why they were in custody for 11 days, because they have a very powerful message for their fellow workers, for their fellow undocumented and for the country. And I think that’s really what brought them to immigration’s radar.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you say how this meshes with President Trump saying he’s going to go after, you know, drug—drug gang members and terrorists and—

MATT CAMERON: It doesn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: —basically, as he says, “bad hombres,” but not talking about the status violations?

MATT CAMERON: No, in no way—now, Trump, of course, has broadened the enforcement priorities so that they can catch anyone in the field that they encounter. But I’ve seen the arrest reports. I heard the government’s argument in court. And these were extremely targeted. These two were hunted down by immigration. This was a long investigation. They were surveilled, they were harassed, they were followed, and they were arrested. And there’s a five-page arrest report in each case detailing this investigation. So I don’t understand at all how this is an appropriate use of federal resources. When there are only 5,000 ICE agents out in the field and 12 to 16 million undocumented people, why would you start with Vermont farmworkers? Why would you start especially with those who are fighting for better working conditions and for safety standards?

AMY GOODMAN: What chance do they have of remaining in the United States, and, Alex, of getting out of an ICE jail?

MATT CAMERON: I don’t want to comment too much on what’s coming. We have a lot of questions that the government is going to need to answer. But Alex, especially, is eligible to immigrate through a marriage visa. We’ve just filed that, and we’re hoping that’s going to be expedited. And he’s going to have to go back to Mexico to process that. It’s a very long road. There’s nothing quick about it, especially given his circumstances. There’s a misconception, I think, that just because he has a U.S. citizen wife and child, that this should be easy or fast, but that’s certainly not the case.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Cameron, I want to thank you for being with us, immigration attorney in Boston representing Migrant Justice organizers Zully Palacio and Enrique Balcazar.

This is Democracy Now! That does it for our broadcast. A very happy birthday to Mike Burke.

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