Migrant Justice: Bail granted for activist facing deportation

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BURLINGTON >> A federal judge has granted bail to a Vermont human rights leader who was arrested by immigration agents last month in Stowe, according to the group Migrant Justice.

Jose Victor Garcia-Diaz, 24, who goes by Victor Diaz, was arrested outside a restaurant by plainclothes agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement who placed him in an unmarked vehicle, according to people who were with Diaz at the time.

An ICE spokesman said just after the arrest that Diaz, who is a Mexican citizen, would be held in ICE custody pending his removal from the United States.

On Wednesday the judge granted him $1,500 bail, according to Migrant Justice, which said it was the minimum allowable bail in removal proceedings.

Diaz was an enforcement priority for ICE because of a November conviction for driving under the influence, the ICE spokesman had said after the arrest. That spokesman did not return a call for comment Wednesday. Attempts to reach the immigration court in Boston on Wednesday weren't successful.

Diaz is expected to return to Vermont soon after his release, the group said. It was not immediately known when his next hearing will be.

"I want to thank everyone for your support. I hope that one day soon I will be able to personally thank all those who have stood by me," Diaz said in a statement released by Migrant Justice.

Diaz, who has lived in Vermont for at least four years and works on an Addison County dairy farm, was a leader in the Milk with Dignity campaign that won support from ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's.

His activism with Migrant Justice and involvement in the Milk with Dignity campaign were the subject of a July article in The New York Times.

Last month Diaz represented Vermont farmworkers at a meeting in California of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. Vermont activists have suggested his growing profile as a national leader on immigration and food system reforms made him a target for ICE agents.

The day after his arrest, activists with Migrant Justice and the Vermont Workers' Center held a small rally at the Burlington office of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., urging the senator to call on the Department of Homeland Security to exercise prosecutorial discretion and halt Diaz's removal proceeding.

At the time Leahy's office said it needed to gather more information before getting involved.

The activist groups continued to call for Diaz's release and a stay in his deportation proceeding at a rally in Montpelier over the weekend. Migrant Justice said Diaz's attorney, Matt Cameron, presented nearly 2,000 petition signatures at Wednesday morning's hearing, as well as 30 letters from close friends and colleagues calling for his release.

Other members of Migrant Justice have had their deportation proceedings halted after public campaigns by the group, most notably in the case of Danilo Alejandro Lopez-Santiago, who goes by Danilo Lopez.

In 2011, Lopez was a passenger in car pulled over on I-89 for speeding. After Lopez failed to produce identification, state police handed him over to the U.S. Border Patrol, setting in motion a deportation proceeding.

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont's entire congressional delegation sent letters calling for prosecutorial discretion in Lopez's case.

Asked Monday at a public event whether he would call for prosecutorial discretion in Diaz's case, Leahy said he would continue to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform that would benefit immigrant workers, but said it would be inappropriate for him to urge prosecutorial discretion, despite having done so in the past.

"I can't influence the prosecution," Leahy said. "I would not allow someone to influence the prosecution when I was state's attorney."

Leahy did not respond directly to a question about whether Diaz's DUI conviction would influence his decision about whether to intervene. His staff also would not address that question for the record.

In a statement Tuesday, Leahy spokesman David Carle said, "Sen. Leahy recognizes and appreciates the concerns expressed on behalf of Mr. Diaz, who has been an important member of the Vermont community for years. The facts of the case, including Mr. Diaz's criminal conviction, are continuing to unfold and Sen. Leahy will continue to closely follow the case. Until there is more clarity, it would be inappropriate to say much more."

A Shumlin spokesman said the governor is in touch with Leahy's office and following closely too, but he would not say what, if any, action the governor might take in Diaz's case.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security on Diaz's behalf, according to Migrant Justice. A Sanders spokesman confirmed Wednesday that the letter was sent April 25 but declined to provide a copy or comment on the content. The spokesman would not say if Sanders was aware of Diaz's conviction.

The Obama administration has directed ICE to focus deportation efforts on people in the country illegally who commit crimes or have criminal histories.

In November 2014, guidance from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said ICE could continue to rely on fingerprint data from state and local law enforcement officials to identify people for deportation, but only for certain crimes, which include DUI.

Migrant Justice has argued that Diaz's conviction shouldn't be a factor in whether DHS decides to exercise prosecutorial discretion, noting that Vermont's justice system is set up to deal with people who drive under the influence, and presumably Diaz has gone through that process.

Deportation proceedings in the Northeast are handled through a Department of Justice civil administrative court in Boston. Attorneys for the Department of Homeland Security act as prosecutors in those cases.

Erin Jacobsen, an attorney with the South Royalton Legal Clinic, a project of Vermont Law School, said fighting deportation can be difficult, especially from Vermont. Lawyers can appear by video link, but those facing deportation must be there in person.

"It's also really hard to find legal help for these kinds of cases" in Vermont, Jacobsen said, and without legal help it becomes an "overwhelmingly difficult process."

Unlike a criminal case in which the government provides attorneys for those who can't afford representation, there is no right to counsel in deportation proceedings. Migrant Justice has said it will try to help Diaz pay for his attorney.


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