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The Trump administration has warned that anyone in the country illegally could be arrested, but immigrant activists across the country say federal immigration agents are targeting them and deporting them for speaking out against the agency's heavy-handed tactics. As NPR's John Burnett reports, federal lawsuits have identified 16 undocumented immigrant leaders who've been arrested nationwide, including six organizers in a pro-immigrant group in Vermont.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A cold and lonely protest in the far reaches of New England, a dozen demonstrators stand amid piles of dirty snow outside of a health clinic in Richford, Vt., not far from the Canada border. They're upset that the Border Patrol arrested an undocumented dairy worker here right after he got his teeth cleaned. An unsmiling young woman in a pink knit cap steps forward.
ZULLY PALACIOS: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: Her name is Zully Palacios. She's 24, from Peru. She, too, is undocumented and was caught by immigration agents. What makes Palacios' case different is that she's a high-profile spokeswoman for an organization called Migrant Justice. It advocates for undocumented dairy workers in Vermont, and that's why she thinks they targeted her.
PALACIOS: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "We're always at the marches, giving interviews without fear of what could happen," she says of the leaders who've been arrested. "So to go against us is a way to intimidate the community."
PALACIOS: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: Palacios and another prominent Migrant Justice leader, Enrique Balcazar, were arrested a year ago while they were driving away from the organization's office. Officers with Immigration and Customs Enforcement had taken their names during an earlier arrest of another colleague. They investigated and learned that Palacios had overstayed a student visa, and Balcazar had entered the country illegally from Mexico to work on dairy farms. Neither Palacios nor Balcazar have criminal records. They're among a half-dozen Migrant Justice leaders, all told, who are fighting their deportation orders.
WILL LAMBEK: There are six cases in particular where it's quite clear that the cause of the arrest was because of the members' leadership in the organization.
BURNETT: Will Lambeck is the national spokesman for Migrant Justice. He ticks off reasons he believes the leaders were targeted. During one arrest, he says, federal officers warned that they'd be back to apprehend another Migrant Justice director. In another arrest, ICE noted in the charging document that the subject, who had a DUI conviction, was, quote, "a member and associate of Migrant Justice." Cases like this are popping up from New York to Seattle. Three arrested activists have claimed in court that ICE is violating their free speech rights.
Arrests of Vermont dairy workers began in the Obama years, and they've accelerated under Trump's immigration crackdown. At the Richford protest, Enrique Balcazar said the apprehensions of Migrant Justice leaders have sent a fresh chill through the immigrant community.
ENRIQUE BALCAZAR: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: He says farm workers are getting afraid to come out to meetings and protests, afraid to expose themselves and risk deportation. Indeed, the only Migrant Justice members to attend the meager protest at the health clinic were the leaders who'd already been arrested. The protesters called for a halt to ICE deportations.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Not one more, not one more, not one more.
BURNETT: ICE flatly refutes claims from Migrant Justice and other pro-immigrant groups that the agency is targeting their leaders. A top ICE official said they don't go after unauthorized immigrants based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make. He said, any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible, speculative and inaccurate. An ICE spokesman for the region that includes Vermont wrote in an email, (reading) professional activists string together tenuous pieces of information to justify their campaigning. The allegations are just wrong. None of the ICE officials agreed to be interviewed.
Since its founding nine years ago, Migrant Justice has grown into a formidable advocate for the undocumented in Vermont. They've pushed for driver's licenses for immigrants and recently convinced Ben & Jerry's to improve working conditions in dairies. At a recent city council meeting in tiny Winooski, Vt., you could witness the influence they wield.
BALCAZAR: Hello. My name is Enrique Balcazar. I don't speak English really well. I'm learning. But I was working in a dairy farm for three years, milking cows.
BURNETT: Balcazar drove here straight from the health clinic protest. He wants to build on the success his organization has had on the state level. Migrant Justice was a major player behind the scenes when the Vermont assembly passed a law that restricts local police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. Some now consider Vermont a sanctuary state. On this night, Migrant Justice has come to convince the city council to pass an even stricter ordinance to stop local police from dealing with ICE. They found a receptive audience. Here is City Councilor Eric Covey.
ERIC COVEY: We are not going to utilize city of Winooski resources to grant access to those individuals who are in our custody to immigration enforcement authorities.
BURNETT: At the end of the public comments, the council votes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All those in favor, please say aye.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Aye.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And those opposed - motion carries.
BURNETT: The measure passes unanimously. While it's difficult to prove that immigration agents are targeting immigrant activists, it's easy to see that Migrant Justice has had success making their jobs harder. John Burnett, NPR News, Burlington, Vt.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEAN HAYES SONG, "NAKED AS THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.