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June 18, 2013

Sanders and Welch Go to Bat for Migrant Farmworker Facing Deportation; Leahy Still Noncommittal

Danilo LopezMexican farmworker leader Danilo Lopez has scored two high-profile supporters in his campaign to fight deportation and stay in Vermont.

On Monday, Sen. Bernie Sanders sent a letter on Lopez's behalf to the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), John Morton, asking the agency to reconsider its decision to send Lopez home to Chiapas on July 6.

"Mr. Lopez has been a farmworker in Vermont for five years," Sanders wrote. "He has an excellent reputation as a worker and has been involved in organizing efforts for a group of approximately 1500 farmworkers in our state who do not have legal status. ... I respectfully request that you look into this matter at your earliest convenience..."

Congressman Peter Welch is drafting a similar letter to ICE on Lopez's behalf, says spokesman Ryan Nickel, and will send it by the end of today.

On Monday, Lopez (pictured) made a last-ditch attempt to halt the deportation, sending ICE a petition signed by 1000 supporters along with 20 personal letters asking the feds to exercise "prosecutorial discretion" in the case. The letters from Sanders and Welch add weight to Lopez's appeal but he still lacks the one signature that might matter most: that of Sen. Patrick Leahy.

As debate over federal immigration reform raged in Washington Monday, Leahy spokesman David Carle said Vermont's senior senator had not decided whether to go to bat for Vermont's best-known undocumented immigrant.

"Senator Leahy’s staff in Vermont and on the Judiciary Committee have been exploring for the best way that Senator Leahy could help," Carle said via email.

An outspoken leader of Vermont's migrant farmworker community, Lopez was put into deportation proceedings after he was arrested by U.S. Border Patrol following a traffic stop in 2011. As his case dragged through immigration court, Lopez became active in pushing legislation to improve conditions for his fellow migrant farmworkers, whose cheap labor has helped prop up Vermont's struggling dairy farms.

Following Lopez's arrest, and subsequent ruling by the Vermont Human Rights Commission that the troooper had discriminated against Lopez based on his skin color, Shumlin ordered the state police to adopt a bias-free policy that forbids them from asking about a person's immigration status unless he or she is suspected of a crime.

More recently, Shumlin signed a bill championed by Lopez and other Latino dairy workers that allows driving privileges to migrant workers here illegally. Lopez stood behind the governor as he signed the bill on June 5, and even spoke at the bill signing. But Shumlin has turned down Lopez's request for a letter of support.

In a phone interview, Lopez, 23, said Shumlin's office told him the governor does not get involved in individual immigration cases. Speaking through a translator, Lopez said, "We continue to work with his office to change his mind on this and see the importance of his letter."

Ditto for Leahy. While Lopez admitted that immigration reform creates "political waters that are hard to navigate," he said Leahy should see his case as a example of why immigration reform is needed.

"I would think it would make sense for him to write a letter of support," Lopez said. "You can't on the one hand be talking about immigration reform and stopping the separation of families but on the other hand having an opportunity here to address that issue. Our campaign is connected to a national campaign to stop all deporations and all separations of families."

In fact, Leahy successfully included in the immigration bill a provision expanding the temporary worker program to cover year-round workers, including those on dairy farms such as Lopez an his migrant brethren.

Lopez asked ICE last year to grant him "prosecutorial discretion" — a form of leniency that allows some immigrants here illegally to stay if they have no criminal record — but he was turned down. How confident does he feel that ICE will change its mind?

"I remain very hopeful," he said. "I've received a tremendous outpouring of support and I am confident that that support will have an effect."

File photo by Taylor Dobbs/

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