Activists in Vermont filed a lawsuit on Wednesday, alleging they were targeted by federal immigration authorities in a multi-year operation that included the use of a civilian informant and retaliatory arrests.
Members of Migrant Justice, an activist group, claim they were targeted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as part of a large-scale campaign to suppress immigration activism in the US.
“It’s had a severe and drastic impact on our ability to carry out our mission, which is to bring immigrant farm workers together to defend and advance their human rights,” Will Lambek, an organizer at Migrant Justice, told the Guardian.
Migrant Justice members are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Vermont, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice and the National Immigration Law Center. The private law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher is also representing the plaintiffs.
The rights groups rallied on Wednesday afternoon before delivering the lawsuit to federal district court in Burlington, Vermont.
At least 20 Migrant Justice members were arrested and detained by Ice, according to the 40-page suit, which also provides details on how a civilian informant allegedly infiltrated the group.
Lambek said the group learned the informant was working with the DHS agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) after seeing repeated references to a “concerned citizen” in Ice arrest reports of Migrant Justice members.
He said: “It came to our attention, through a third party who had been brought into the confidences of this informant, that the person was in fact working with Ice and in frequent communication with her handler at Ice regarding Migrant Justice’s activities and its membership.”
According to the suit, in text messages, the informant told the third party Ice had been surveilling a Migrant Justice member’s home for weeks and planned to arrest the activist.
Lambek said the retaliation campaign began in 2013, after the group helped pass a law that allowed Vermont residents to get driving privileges even if they were undocumented.
The suit claims the Vermont department of motor vehicles (DMV), which the groups claim helped federal immigration authorities target activists by sending information from applications to the driving program to DHS.
Cooperation between the Vermont DMV and Ice was revealed in 2016 by local news site VTDigger. The DMV defended itself, saying the program was overwhelmed by applicants, many fraudulent, and it needed federal resources to help investigate questionable petitioners.
Plaintiffs said they were harassed and intimidated by Ice officials. An Ice officer told the facility he had brought them a “famous person”, after arresting Jose Enrique Balcazar Sanchez, a plaintiff who joined Migrant Justice in 2011 and is one of its main spokesmen.
“We come to the US from countries with histories of political repression but we thought our freedom of speech would be protected as we stood up to defend our rights,” said Balcazar Sanchez said in a statement.
“It is clear that Ice is trying to silence the voices of immigrants in Vermont.”
The suit alleges Ice participated in a disinformation campaign against Migrant Justice, claiming staff were providing the agency with information on immigrants it assisted.
The lawsuit seeks an order to stop DHS from targeting, arresting, surveilling and detailing Migrant Justice members and to stop Vermont’s DMV from sharing information with federal enforcement agencies.
“Ice’s efforts to undermine Migrant Justice are part of a pattern of Ice expending significant resources to target, surveil, arrest and detain immigrant activists and leaders across the country in response to their protected political speech and activity,” the lawsuit says.
Ice said it does not comment on pending litigation.
But the agency’s acting deputy director, Matthew Albence, has said Ice “does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make.”
“Any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible, speculative and inaccurate.”
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