Farm workers, including organizers, beat Trump twice in federal court in one day
Enrique Balcazar, of Migrant Justice, an advocacy group representing immigrant farmworkers in Vermont, speaks to a crowd outside the federal court on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, in Burlington, Vt. U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement has agreed not to deport Balcazar or two other activists in a settlement of the activists' lawsuit accusing the federal government of targeting them in retaliation for their activism. | Lisa Rathke/AP

One of the nation’s most underpaid, exploited and oppressed groups of workers, farm workers, and their union organizers, won twice against the anti-worker GOP Trump regime in federal court on Oct. 28, in Vermont and California.

The two wins represent yet more victories against the White House occupant’s war on workers, particularly workers of color. The farm workers in both Vermont and California are predominantly Latinx.

In Vermont, the Trump Justice Department settled a two-year-old suit from Migrant Justice by, in so many words, admitting its Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents there and nationwide illegally targeted farm worker organizers. The settlement bans such ICE targeting in Vermont as a violation of constitutional rights.

A spokeswoman for one organization backing the victorious Vermont organizers, the Center for Constitutional Rights, says the win reinforces the need for constant resistance to federal repression, stretching all the way back to the Nixon administration’s COINTELPRO surveillance and federal spying on Black leaders from the 1960s through right now.

In California, the Farm Workers beat Trump Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, D.C.-based Farmworker Justice reported. Perdue instituted a move, without required public hearings, that would have cut pay next year for 250,000 H2-A visa-holding “agricultural guest workers” by anywhere from $3.15 an hour in Florida to $5.62 an hour in Idaho.

“How can Donald Trump justify slashing pay for all farm workers in the U.S., which means cutting wages by up to a quarter or a half in some states?” United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero said when UFW sued on Oct. 14. It won in federal court in Fresno.

The Vermont workers and their organization, Migrant Justice, marched to the federal courthouse in Burlington, Vt., to claim their win, a court order approving the settlement. The court also banned the state Department of Motor Vehicles from sharing data with ICE.

And the three named organizers in the lawsuit, Enrique Balcazar, Zully Palacios, and Victor Diaz, who were subsequently arrested and held for deportation, now have had their deportation proceedings suspended and will share in a $100,000 fine the court imposed on Trump’s Justice Department.

“More than three years ago, ICE targeted me for my political activism and held me in detention for 11 days. They have been trying to deport me ever since,” Balcazar told Migrant Justice. “With this agreement, ICE is admitting defeat, allowing myself and others to remain in the country and accepting they cannot target people for speaking out and organizing.”

“We want this to become a precedent so that other groups and community leaders can organize without fear of retaliation. Because fear is not an option for our communities.”

“ICE infiltrated Migrant Justice’s private meetings, targeted, surveilled, and engaged in disinformation campaigns to sow distrust among its members and arrested and/or detained no fewer than 20 active Migrant Justice members,” including Balcazar, Palacios, and Diaz, the organization’s court papers said.

The ACLU of Vermont and other pro-worker lawyer groups joined Migrant Justice to sue ICE for its spying, disruption, and detention during the group’s Milk With Dignity campaign to improve working conditions and worker rights for 1,500 migrants on Vermont dairy farms.

“ICE takes these actions because” the organizers “are engaged in First Amendment [free speech] activities and to deter them and others from engaging in similar activity,” meaning advocacy for the workers, they told the court.

Vermont’s motor vehicles department helped ICE. “Motivated by racial and xenophobic animus, DMV employees give ICE private driver information, including the personal information and location, of non-white, predominately Latino, individuals,” the suit said.

All this, especially ICE’s infiltration, chilled organizing and mobilization and violated constitutional rights. Workers were afraid to speak out publicly or attend protests and rallies. And Migrant Justice had to divert much-needed money from advocacy and organizing workers to immigration bonds, attorneys’ fees, and aspects of fighting ICE’s detention of the organizers.

Out in Fresno, U.S. District Court Judge Dale Drozd decided for the Farm Workers.

Trump Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue ended USDA’s Farm Labor Wage Survey on Sept. 30. USDA had surveyed growers twice a year and used the results to set average wage rates for 200,000-250,000 for “agricultural guest workers” who hold H2-A visas. Perdue also dumped annual November publication of the survey findings.

The practical impact of Perdue’s moves is to cut those farm workers’ wages next year down to state or federal minimum wages, usually lower than wages USDA surveyors found. Eliminating the survey, the Farm Workers told the judge, would also let growers cut pay for native-born farm workers, too.

Perdue cut the survey and the publication without required hearings on its impact, which would be massive cuts for U.S. farm workers from coast to coast, regardless of what crops they reap and sow, said Farmworker Justice President Bruce Goldstein. Drozd’s injunction ordered USDA to resume the survey and the follow-up report, “to protect farmworkers’ wages.”

He called Perdue’s decision “an end run” around federal rules “in a cruel effort to slash farmworkers’ wages” right at a time when farm workers are among the most vulnerable workers to the coronavirus.

“The actions of ICE against Migrant Justice and its members cannot be divorced from the federal government’s, including ICE and other enforcement agencies’, disgraceful history of unlawfully targeting, surveilling, and disrupting grassroots movements for racial justice and civil and human rights,” said Lupe Aguirre of the Center for Constitutional Rights, one group aiding the Vermonters.

“From COINTELPRO and the government’s actions against leaders in the movement for Black liberation in the 60s and 70s to its current attacks on Black Lives Matter advocates, immigrant leaders in the Sanctuary Movement, and advocates at the southern border, the federal government has demonstrated a pattern of retaliation against dissenters across movements. It is up to us to hold our government to account.”

“ICE is on notice that we will continue to fight for the rights of Migrant Justice, its members, and other civil and human rights defenders,” Aguirre concluded.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.