Detained for organizing workers in Vermont

May 9, 2016

Steve Ramey reports on the campaign to free an immigrant rights and labor activist in Vermont--and the many struggles for him and others that lie ahead.

"THERE ARE days of winds, days of fury and days of tears. But there are also days of love that give us the courage to carry on."

Those are the words of dairy farm worker and immigrant rights activist Victor Diaz who was recently arrested and detained for more than two weeks by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

On May 4, Victor was released on bail after Migrant Justice, the Vermont-based human rights organization he works with, conducted a campaign to win his release. The judge set Victor's bail at the lowest possible amount, ensuring he would be released. But the struggle to allow Victor Diaz to remain in the U.S. is far from over.

Diaz was born in Chiapas, Mexico, and began his work fighting for migrant workers' rights after he spent his first two years in Vermont living in a dilapidated camper on a dairy farm. He and his co-workers demanded better conditions and--through a hard-fought struggle that included a walkout for back pay--eventually won them from Ray Brands, the dairy farmer for whom they worked.

Victor Diaz at a justice for farmworkers demonstration
Victor Diaz at a justice for farmworkers demonstration (Migrant Justice)

Diaz later helped lead the Milk with Dignity campaign that achieved a victory by making Ben & Jerry's agree to a new code of conduct with its migrant workers in the Northeast dairy supply chain.

All of these victories came on the heels of two major reforms won by Migrant Justice. First was the imposition of bias-free policing, which prohibited police from asking for immigration papers and referring undocumented immigrants to the Border Patrol even when there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Second, the Vermont Senate agreed to issue driver's licenses and identification cards, regardless of immigration status.

It's impossible not to see Victor Diaz's arrest and detention as payback for all the progress that migrant workers and Migrant Justice activists have made in Vermont over the past few years. ICE listed Victor as an "enforcement priority" because of a conviction for an alleged DUI last November. Migrant Justice officials say they were unaware of any conviction and believe he should not have been targeted regardless.

DUI convictions have become the means by which Homeland Security's largest investigative arm Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has sought to intimidate immigrant communities and deport leaders like Victor. Convictions are easier to win in these cases because the accused often speak English as a second language and because of the tenuous legal recourse that undocumented immigrants have.

CONGRESS HAS also tied ICE's funding to keeping 34,000 immigrants detained at any given time through a stipulation called the "detention bed mandate."

Two private prison corporations--Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group--spent millions of dollars lobbying for this stipulation because they own eight of the 10 largest immigrant detention facilities in the U.S. and want to maintain their obscene profits built on prison construction and the stolen labor of inmates. This is also a major contributing factor to the Obama administration's deportation of 2.2 million people, more than were deported in the entire 20th century.

Local law enforcement, the Border Patrol, ICE, Homeland Security, the private prison industry, the racist U.S. Congress and the deportation-mad Obama administration are the stacked deck that Victor Diaz and millions of other immigrant workers across the country face every day.

In the face of this oppressive opposition, hundreds of Vermonters joined together on May Day at the State House in Montpelier to demand the release of Victor Diaz. "Victor Diaz first organized himself and his co-workers to fight for better conditions for the dairy farm on which he worked," Enrique Balcazar, Victor's fellow Migrant Justice activist, told the crowd through an interpreter. "Then he joined with workers around the state to organize with Migrant Justice for dignified labor and housing, and so while we're sad that he's detained we aren't going to let him stay there in jail by himself."

Students at the University of Vermont (UVM) led by Juntos, Migrant Justice's student group, also held a rally of about 60 people when Victor's release was announced by UVM student and Juntos activist Kelsey Aaron:

Victor is going to be out of jail, but the fight is still on! Thanks to all we've done--2,000 signatures, more than 30 letters from friends--we were able to get a low bond without precedent. We still have to fight to stop his deportation. Sign the petition directed to ICE!

Yesterday we visited Victor, and he sent a message to you: "Thank you so much for all your work. Thanks to everybody, the ones that I know and the ones that I don't, I hope to meet everyone who gave me all this support!"

We have won the first battle, but we cannot stop fighting against Victor's deportation. Not one more!

IT TOOK a grassroots campaign to win this first battle even though Vermont's congressional delegation is uniquely situated to intervene on Victor's behalf.

On April 20, Migrant Justice activists filled Sen. Patrick Leahy's office to urge him to take action for Victor. In the past, Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee despite assisting the Obama administration in its shameful record of deportations, has helped expedite the release of Migrant Justice activist Danilo Lopez, whose case started the fight for bias-free policing in Vermont.

Leahy's spokesperson John Tracy greeted activists with lukewarm words of support, saying he was sorry to hear Victor was detained. Tracy gave Migrant Justice activists a privacy release form for Victor to sign, an unnecessary hoop to jump through in order to take pressure off Leahy to act.

The Burlington Free Press has run headlines like "Leahy to Intervene in Detention of Migrant Worker," but it has been two weeks, and Leahy still hasn't made a public statement about the case.

Similarly, Vermont's Sen. Bernie Sanders has sent an unpublicized statement of support to Migrant Justice, but has otherwise remained silent about Victor's case, despite having the largest left-wing bully pulpit in the U.S. today. Sanders could give his "political revolution" some form--and win over Latino and working-class voters too--by calling for the release of a leading activist of both those constituencies.

Victor's case is the latest travesty of justice for immigrants in the nightmare of neoliberal America, where the people who make the gears turn in the world's largest economy are criminalized while parasites like CCA and GEO reap obscene profits and are rewarded with tax-free status.

We need immediate reforms--like getting rid of the detention bed mandate and other demands advanced by Migrant Justice that have had a positive impact on the immigrant community in Vermont. But as long as the drive for profit takes precedence over human rights, these reforms will always be on shaky ground, and immigrant workers like Victor Diaz will be scapegoated and marginalized.

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