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Immigration activists file lawsuit saying they were targeted by US government

The Guardian logo The Guardian 11/14/2018 Amanda Holpuch in New York
a person holding a sign: Protesters call for the release of two activists with Migrant Justice and a detained migrant worker in Boston, Massachusetts, on 27 March 2017. © EPA Protesters call for the release of two activists with Migrant Justice and a detained migrant worker in Boston, Massachusetts, on 27 March 2017.

Activists in Vermont planned to file a lawsuit on Wednesday, alleging they were targeted by federal immigration authorities in a multi-year operation that included the use of a civilian informant and retaliatory arrests.

Related: US toughens border as first members of migrant caravan reach Tijuana

Members of Migrant Justice, an activist group, claim they were targeted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as part of a large-scale campaign to suppress immigration activism in the US.

“It’s had a severe and drastic impact on our ability to carry out our mission, which is to bring immigrant farm workers together to defend and advance their human rights,” Will Lambek, an organizer at Migrant Justice, told the Guardian.

Migrant Justice members are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Vermont, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice and the National Immigration Law Center. The private law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher is also representing the plaintiffs.

The rights groups planned to rally on Wednesday afternoon before delivering the lawsuit to federal district court in Burlington, Vermont.

At least nine Migrant Justice members allege they were targeted, arrested and detained in retaliation for their activism. The suit will also provide details on how a civilian informant allegedly infiltrated the group.

Lambek said the group learned the informant was working with the DHS agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) after seeing repeated references to a “concerned citizen” in Ice arrest reports of Migrant Justice members.

He said: “It came to our attention, through a third party who had been brought into the confidences of this informant, that the person was in fact working with Ice and in frequent communication with her handler at Ice regarding Migrant Justice’s activities and its membership.”

Lambek said the retaliation campaign began in 2013, after the group helped pass a law that allowed Vermont residents to get driving privileges even if they were undocumented.

The suit is also set to target the Vermont department of motor vehicles (DMV), which the groups claim helped federal immigration authorities target activists by sending information from applications to the driving program to DHS.

Cooperation between the Vermont DMV and Ice was revealed in 2016 by local news site VTDigger. The DMV defended itself, saying the program was overwhelmed by applicants, many fraudulent, and it needed federal resources to help investigate questionable petitioners.

Related: The US citizens bypassing university to protect their parents from Ice

Plaintiffs said they were harassed and intimidated by Ice officials. One claimed to have been referred to as a “famous person”, because of their activism.

“We come to the US from countries with histories of political repression but we thought our freedom of speech would be protected as we stood up to defend our rights,” said José Enrique Balcazar Sanchez, a Migrant Justice leader and plaintiff in the case, in a statement.

“It is clear that Ice is trying to silence the voices of immigrants in Vermont.”

Migrant Justice claims Ice participated in a disinformation campaign against the group, claiming staff were providing the agency with information on immigrants it assisted.

The lawsuit will seek an order to stop DHS from targeting, arresting, surveilling and detailing Migrant Justice members and to stop Vermont’s DMV from sharing information with federal enforcement agencies.

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