-By Dayna Stimson and Ashley Smith
Dayna Stimson, of Burlington, is a family nurse practitioner and a member of the Champlain Valley Democratic Socialists of America and Community Voices for Immigrant Rights. Ashley Smith, of Burlington, is a member of the Champlain Valley Democratic Socialists of America and Community Voices for Immigrant Rights. He writes for various publications including Spectre, Truthout, Jacobin, and New Politics.
The federal government’s hypocrisy and cruelty toward undocumented immigrants in our state and throughout the country is on full display. Amidst the pandemic, the Trump administration has continued its war on migrants, deploying Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Custom and Border Protection (CBP) to arrest, detain, and deport them.
At the same time, the government has exempted most undocumented immigrants from the shut-down orders, instead categorizing them as essential workers in agriculture, services, manufacturing, and logistics necessary to keep our society functioning. And, to compound their hypocrisy, they deny them all the benefits granted to other workers in the bailout packages passed by Congress.
Migrant workers and their allies are mounting a growing resistance to these injustices. We have recently scored a string of victories that we are determined to build on in further campaigns to win equal rights and benefits for immigrants in our state and country.
On March 9th, activists successfully pressured the Burlington City Council to pass a new Fair and Impartial Policing Policy (FIPP) that bars collaboration between Burlington police and immigration authorities. This was not won overnight, but was the result of years of organizing, led by farmworkers organized in Migrant Justice.
Migrant Justice and Community Voices for Immigrant Rights (CVIR) launched a “No Más Polimigra” campaign to win passage of the resolution. We organized a nine-month struggle that united dozens of unions, community organizations, religious institutions, and progressive politicians culminating in a near unanimous vote in the Burlington City Council.
Coming after passage of similar FIPPs in Winooski, Norwich, and Hartford, the Burlington victory sets a precedent as the most populous and one of the most diverse cities in Vermont. Our success in this campaign offers many lessons for activists and lays the foundation for even more sweeping reforms in this state and nationally.
Migrant Justice played a pivotal role from the start, educating our core organizers and CVIR about loopholes in the existing FIPP, which enabled collaboration between the police and immigration authorities, and the legal and political arguments in favor of closing them. On that foundation, we developed leaders able to write leaflets and op-eds, make presentations before organizations, and speak on the teach-ins we organized in the community and on campuses. Migrant Justice had also drafted an alternative policy, written specifically to close the loopholes in existing FIPPs that have allowed for continued collaboration. When we began our campaign, this strengthened policy had already found a foothold in neighboring Winooski.
Through this work we built an extensive base of support among dozens of groups and in the community. We also worked closely with city council members, especially in the Progressive Party, who were reliable advocates for the cause from the start. We also reached out to the rest of the city’s political leadership, most of whom we met with several times, except for Mayor Miro Weinberger and City Attorney Eileen Blackwood, who never agreed to meet.
Knowing that we would face legalistic counterarguments from Weinberger’s administration, we reached out to the ACLU, who provided an invaluable letter substantiating our case, as well as an activist lawyer who provided pro-bono legal advice. The ACLU and our legal adviser provided backing as we adapted Migrant Justice’s strengthened policy into a resolution for Burlington.
We thus built an infrastructure of alliances both inside and outside of the Council that were decisive in winning the passage of the new FIPP. All of this work culminated in two large demonstrations at City Council meetings where hundreds attended and dozens spoke in the public comment period, demonstrating that the community was on the side of equality and justice.
This tide of solidarity compelled all the councilors except City Council President, Republican Kurt Wright, to vote for passage of the new FIPP. This is an enormous victory for human rights, but let’s be clear: it is only a small part in the much larger fight for equal rights for immigrants in our state and country.
The pandemic and recession have put the oppression and exploitation of migrant workers in sharp relief. Most are essential workers that pick the crops, make things in industrial plants, and provide services. In Vermont, a majority work on the dairy farms, a lynchpin of our state’s economy.
Like many of us, if they still have their jobs, they are squeezed to work harder and in dangerous conditions. If they have lost their jobs, they worry about how to pay next month’s rent, or the next healthcare bill, or student loan payment. But unlike citizens, they will see no relief from the stimulus bill passed by Congress, guaranteeing that their economic status is more precarious than most Vermonters.
They are particularly under threat amidst this pandemic. On the farms, most live in small, crowded homes, preventing them from participating in social distancing. Moreover, few farms offer paid sick leave, so workers will likely be forced to stay on the job even when they’re sick, risking the spread of the coronavirus to other farm workers and the broader community. And if they do get COVID-19, they are unlikely to seek care because they fear deportation and also often lack health insurance, which will only compound the likelihood of viral spread.
On top of these injustices, the dairy industry throughout the country, including in Vermont, faces an enormous drop in demand, raising concerns about layoffs and a threat to the state’s economy. Already, farmers in Vermont have dumped 60,000 gallons of surplus milk since April 1st, and dairies in other states are following suit.
It is time to build on the victory won in Burlington to mount an even larger struggle for immigrant rights. We should expand the struggle for No Más Polimigra in cities and towns throughout Vermont and support Migrant Justice’s campaign to pressure Hannaford to join Ben and Jerry’s in the Milk with Dignity Program, which requires these multinational corporations to pay for better wages and working conditions on the state’s dairy farms.
We also must demand that Vermont and the federal government:
- suspend all ICE detention and deportation operations and redeploy those workers to socially useful jobs;
- shut down all the detention centers and concentration camps, which have become dangerous sites for the spread of the virus, and free all the detainees;
- include all immigrants in the benefit packages granted to the rest of the working class amidst this pandemic and recession.
These demands are neither optional nor pie in the sky; they are necessary and realistic ones that should be enacted immediately. Already, several cities and states in the US and some nations in the world have already begun to adopt versions of them.
A judge in New Jersey ordered the immediate release of 10 immigrants in detention whose underlying health conditions place them at greater risk for COVID-19. Minneapolis just created a $5 million COVID-19 relief fund for its residents, and families will be eligible for assistance regardless of their documentation status. Portugal has temporarily granted full citizenship rights to all migrants and asylum seekers during the COVID-19 crisis so that they may have access to the country’s health care system.
Vermont must follow these examples and implement what is in its power to do in the state, while advocating for change at the national level. The pandemic has proven beyond a shadow of doubt that undocumented workers are essential to our society and deserve to be treated as such by being granted all the rights and benefits afforded to the rest of the working class.
During this crisis, when anyone falling ill is a threat to our collective health, we should fight for policies in line the founding slogan the labor movement “An Injury to One is an Injury to All” and update it with new slogans for our day: “No Human Being is Illegal” and “Not One Left Behind.” Our very lives depend on solidarity against any and all divisions among workers.