ICE’s Vendetta Against Migrant Organizers

ICE is increasingly targeting migrant labor leaders for arrest and deportation. Their intent is to spread terror and discourage organization.

Migrant Justice organizers at a rally for their Milk With Dignity program in Vermont. Q2 / Migrant Justice

Emboldened by President Trump’s unyielding anti-immigrant invective, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has carried on tradition in 2018, sabotaging immigrant communities across the country at a breakneck pace. In a coordinated campaign to suppress the constitutionally protected speech of immigrants, ICE has been targeting and arresting immigrant activists across the country, continuing decades of hostility toward progressive activists of color.

Those targeted in 2018 alone include Ravi Ragbir, director of the New Sanctuary Coalition and an outspoken leader for immigrants in New York and nationwide; Daniela Vargas, arrested in Mississippi moments after she spoke at a press conference to denounce the arrests of her brother and father; Claudia Rueda, whom ICE detained after she publicly advocated for the release of her mother, whom ICE had previously arrested; and Maru Mora-Villalpando, a nationwide immigrant rights leader and a Washington-based community stalwart.

ICE’s anti-speech program is not limited to individual, nationally known activists. In one of its more insidious attacks, the subject of a Center for Constitutional Rights’ (CCR) First Amendment lawsuit, ICE has set its sights on Migrant Justice, a Vermont-based collective of predominantly migrant dairy workers. Migrant Justice has suffered the retaliatory immigration arrests of dozens of leaders and members over the last four years, often in the aftermath of successful organizing campaigns and events.

In targeting Vermont migrant laborers, ICE is targeting among the most vulnerable. Isolated on remote farms scattered across the state, dairy workers operate in dangerous, sometimes life-threatening conditions, and historically have relied on their employers for their basic needs. It is not unlike feudal-era serfdom or the company towns of old. Migrant Justice sprung up to meet this dire need for labor organizing, and follows the path laid down by Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, the two titans of the Chicano movement and co-founders of the National Farm Workers Association (now the United Farm Workers).

Migrant Justice is both the lifeline for the Vermont Latino community and is heralded as the gold standard for organized labor in the state. So far, it’s won state-issued driver’s licenses and state-provided universal health care for its immigrant community. Its Milk with Dignity program, which seeks to ensure a more humane dairy industry, has spread to over seventy farms and has attracted commitment from Ben and Jerry’s. Along with the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker-based human rights organization internationally recognized for its widely lauded Fair Food Program, Migrant Justice’s success has helped cultivate a nationwide migrant farmworker movement, introducing migrant labor issues into the greater national civil rights chorus.

Divide and Conquer

Because the Vermont dairy industry — like many others — relies so heavily on migrant labor, Migrant Justice has also served as an advocate against the federal government’s increasingly abusive immigration practices. This advocacy has become a matter of survival for its targeted membership.

ICE has arrested over a dozen Migrant Justice members; none had serious criminal records and few, if any, were priorities under ICE’s guidelines for enforcement, a fact not lost upon Senator Bernie Sanders, who was quick to point this out to ICE when it arrested two Migrant Justice leaders in 2017.

Instead, ICE agents in Vermont made clear that leaders and members were targeted for their association with Migrant Justice. ICE mined Migrant Justice members’ social media pages and referred to them by their nicknames found only on Facebook. ICE followed them from the Migrant Justice office. ICE told Migrant Justice which members were next to be arrested and, when they arrested Migrant Justice’s spokesperson, gloated to jailers that they had brought them a “famous” person. When they detained them, they forbade them from contacting anyone at Migrant Justice.

ICE even conscripted a confidential informant, a known figure in the local community, to infiltrate the organization and to funnel personal and sensitive information to ICE. ICE thus knew about organizers’ private meetings before they even happened. According to text messages obtained, the informant stated that “anytime [a local ICE agent] makes an arrest he asks me.”

When rumors began swirling about the identity of the informant, ICE made Migrant Justice members believe it was their leadership who were funneling information. ICE intentionally spread disinformation within Migrant Justice, pitting leaders against one another to sow discord and disruption and to weaken its efficacy. And these tactics continue. This isn’t legitimate law enforcement — it’s vendetta.

Loudly, Boldly, Indivisibly

As our lawsuit makes clear, ICE targeted and infiltrated Migrant Justice not out of existing immigration enforcement policy but to weaken and destabilize its efficacy as an advocacy organization. Its actions not only bear all the hallmarks of the Trump administration’s larger war against free speech and its ever-present hostilities against immigrants, but also reflect a shameful history of government suppression of the voices of organizers of color and their representative movements.

During the FBI’s implementation of COINTELPRO from 1956–1971 the federal government targeted, among others, the Chicano, Black liberation, Puerto Rican independence, and American Indian movements. As Iris Morales, leader of the famed 1970s Latino group the Young Lords noted in analogous detail, “Police agents within the organization worked to intensify the differences and natural contradictions that existed among us.” There, as here, the federal government enlisted informants to spread disinformation, turn members against one another, and corrode the bonds forged by the organization. ICE’s program is a mere pastiche of past federal policy.

Disassembled as COINTELPRO may be, its spirit lives on. Although the federal government targeted many Latino groups during this era including the Young Lords, La Raza Unida Party, Centro de Accion Social Autonoma, the Brown Berets, the Crusade for Social Justice, and the Chicano National Moratorium, perhaps the most direct analogy is the Huerta- and Chavez-led United Farm Workers (UFW) movement.

Migrant Justice, as a farmworker collective seeking to organize labor, draws a haunting parallel to the government’s xenophobic response to UFW organizing during the 1966–1970 Delano Grape Strike. For over a decade, the FBI surveilled, infiltrated, and sought to destroy the immigrant-heavy UFW with the express purpose of weakening labor protections and destabilizing its leadership.

Although local and state officials were, as here, also involved in the suppression, directives came from as high as then Vice President Spiro Agnew. Indeed, when the UFW engaged in its famed grape boycott, then California governor Reagan plucked some off the vine and ate them on live television. One can easily imagine such a crass response from Trump.

There, as here, local farm owners have regularly pressured the migrant community to disassociate themselves from Migrant Justice. As the complaint alleges, many owners discourage their employees from participating in Migrant Justice advocacy for fear that their workers would be detained and deported. Worse, ultimately, many farm owners are also reluctant to participate in the Milk with Dignity Program, leaving much of the community subjected to the same unjust practices this advocacy was designed to expose. Farm owners are backing away from these commitments in a context where barely a month has passed since ICE detained a former member of Migrant Justice’s Farmworker Coordinating Committee. The targeting of the migrant advocate community — and the fight against it — continues.

ICE’s targeting of Migrant Justice is a compound blow against immigrants and labor organizers alike. ICE’s actions are consistent with the inveterate federal prerogative to destabilize social justice movements and progressive advocacy across the country, and is in line with the conservative attack on labor rights spreading across legislatures and even reaching the Supreme Court. ICE has fallen in line, building upon this country’s historic animus against immigrant empowerment.

As was the case in decades past, the United States is demanding that its immigrant communities subordinate themselves, assimilate, and above all, to be grateful for the opportunity to even be here. And yet, like its progenitors who led the Chicano movement, Migrant Justice has rejected those demands. It remains undeterred, convinced that the only way to obtain any true dignity on behalf of its community is to do so loudly, boldly, and indivisibly.