Jose Luis Cordova Herrera was driven home from the dentist on February 8 by a friend when the two were stopped in Richford, Vermont, by United States Border Patrol agents.
Despite having no criminal record, Cordova Herrera, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was arrested and held on $14,000 bail. The farmworker and father of three was freed after almost three weeks in prison following a community campaign calling for his release.
Cordova Herrera is the third person in his family to face deportation. His brother and nephew were arrested by local deputies and Border Patrol agents in the same Vermont county and consequently forced to leave the U.S. last year.
All three are victims of a new, disturbing trend in Vermont, where Border Patrol arrests have risen dramatically over the last year.
Migrant Justice, a coalition of local farmworkers, accuses Border Patrol of using racial profiling to target the state’s immigrant dairy farm laborers and especially their members, who are vocal community organizers.
Empowered by President Donald Trump’s administration, local law enforcement and federal agents are bringing repressive policing to supposedly progressive Vermont.
Vermont belongs to the Swanton Border Patrol Sector, which spans the length of the U.S.-Canadian boundary from St. Lawrence County, New York, to Coos County, New Hampshire.
According to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the number of undocumented immigrants arrested in the Swanton Sector rose from 291 to 449 — more than fifty-four percent — from fiscal year 2016 to 2017.
This rise in arrests came despite CBP reporting the lowest level of illegal border-crossings on record, which suggests the agency pursues undocumented immigrants already in the United States, rather than stopping those en route.
Many of the immigrants arrested in Vermont are laborers in the state’s dairy industry. According to Migrant Justice, Vermont is home to approximately 1,500 immigrant dairy farmworkers, who support well-known brands like Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Cheese.
Migrant Justice was formed following the grisly death of Jose Obeth Santiz Cruz, a young dairy farmworker who was strangled by machinery in 2009, revealing the dangerous working conditions for such laborers. Since then, the group has organized farmworkers to lobby the industry for higher employment standards and, more recently, to defend their own rights as immigrants.
Migrant Justice estimates that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol arrest one immigrant farmworker every week in Vermont.
“They wait in front of farms and arrest people when they drive to the store or the bank,” said Enrique “Kike” Balcazar, a dairy farmworker and member of Migrant Justice. “One time they arrested a father when he was taking the trash out to the curb. Workers have been picked up in parks, leaving health clinics, in parking lots, or just walking to work.”
“In the past couple years, I know about twenty-five people personally who have been detained, and most of them have ended up deported.”
Balcazar was arrested in March 2017 while leaving the Migrant Justice office in Burlington.
Without enough money to finish school in his native Tabasco, Mexico, he arrived in Vermont seven years ago to join his parents working in the dairy industry. He spent three years working on farms around the state before meeting organizers with Migrant Justice and joining the group.
His arrest came at the height of Migrant Justice’s “Milk with Dignity” campaign, which successfully lobbied Ben & Jerry’s to support higher wages, greater benefits, and safer working conditions in Vermont’s dairy industry. As one of the spokespeople for Migrant Justice’s campaign, Balcazar doesn’t believe the timing of his arrest was a coincidence.
“I am one of many Migrant Justice leaders who have been targeted by ICE and Border Patrol for detention and deportation because we are speaking out for our human rights,” he says.
Balcazar was arrested along with his partner Zully Palacios, who is also a member of Migrant Justice.They were imprisoned for eleven days, although neither had a criminal record. He spent nine of those days at an overcrowded detention center in New Hampshire, where he was separated from Palacios and forced to share a common space with fifteen other prisoners.
As with Cordova Herrera, Balcazar and Palacios were released following an outcry from the community, which included a 10,000-signature petition, as well as marches throughout Vermont and in Boston, where their cases were tried.
Their victory, while inspiring, may only be temporary, as both Balcazar and Palacios are still at risk of deportation and must report back to court next year.
Aside from attempting to silence their spokespeople, Migrant Justice accuses Border Patrol of using racial profiling to target the wider immigrant dairy farmworker community.
The case of Francisco Rosendo Casarrubias from Franklin County, Vermont, who had no criminal record and was walking to work at a dairy farm at the time of his arrest by Border Patrol, seems to confirm this. According to Migrant Justice, Border Patrol agents claimed that, because Rosendo Casarrubias was “wearing a backpack,” they suspected him of crossing the border from Canada.
“The only logical conclusion — and this is consistent with our community’s experiences — is that Border Patrol is relying on racial profiling to harass people of color,” said Will Lambek, an organizer with Migrant Justice.
Lambek points to the Supreme Court’s 1975 decision in United States v. Brignoni-Ponce as giving Border Patrol wide discretion in racial profiling. The court unanimously ruled the appearance of Mexican ancestry cannot be the only grounds for questioning immigration status, but in his opinion for the court, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote, “The likelihood that any given person of Mexican ancestry is an alien is high enough to make Mexican appearance a relevant factor.”
In other words, Mexican appearance plus an additional factor — such as wearing a backpack — could be acceptable grounds for questioning.
“This awful precedent sets an extremely high bar for people of color to challenge racial profiling by Border Patrol,” Lambek said.
Still, immigrants from Vermont have had some success against Border Patrol in court.
While being driven to a community meeting, Migrant Justice member Lorenzo Alcudia was detained by a local sheriff’s department sergeant in Grand Isle County, Vermont, in 2015. Although the white driver of the vehicle was only given a warning for speeding and then released, Alcudia was held for more than an hour until Border Patrol agents arrived to take him into custody.
Alcudia filed a complaint against the sheriff’s department with Vermont’s Human Rights Commission, which found “overwhelming evidence” of discriminatory treatment. He received a $30,000 settlement but still faces removal proceedings.
To better defend their members and their community, Migrant Justice provides “Know Your Rights” training and pushes for stronger state legislation to protect immigrants. In particular, Lambek highlights Vermont’s Fair and Impartial Policing policy, which Migrant Justice helped craft and which prohibited biased policing at all local and state law enforcement agencies beginning in 2016.
Unfortunately, Trump’s ascension has introduced new challenges. Vermont officials faced an ultimatum from the new administration: either state and local police cooperate with federal authorities in identifying undocumented immigrants or the state risks losing federal funding.
Vermont’s Criminal Justice Training Council caved, watering down the Fair and Impartial Policing policy less than a year and a half after it was enacted.
Other politicians have likewise been unreliable allies. One example Lambek points to is Attorney General T.J. Donovan, a Democrat who deferred to ICE in the arrest of Balcazar despite having previously worked together with the Migrant Justice member on immigration issues.
The one steadfast factor, it seems, is community solidarity. After being released, Cordova Herrera shared a sentiment to that effect.
Three weeks in prison gave him a lot of time to think, he said in a press release from Migrant Justice, and during that time he came to realize the power of community organizing.
“My freedom is proof of the power of an organized community,” he concluded.