From The Guardian
When Kike Balcazar, Zully Palacios and Alex Carrillo were held in a detention center, their tragedy united a great many Vermonters
Vermont, where I live, has the second-smallest population of any state. It's also among the most rural parts of America, and taken together those two facts produce an iron law: if you see someone with their car stuck in a snowbank, you don't drive by. You stop and help push. Because if you don't, nobody else may come by for an hour.
Which is why, I think, many of us have spent part of the past couple weeks trying to win the freedom of three of our neighbors -- Kike Balcazar, Zully Palacios and Alex Carrillo. They are undocumented immigrants, who came here to work on our farms, and were detained by the (aptly named) Ice, or Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, in New Hampshire, awaiting deportation.
Even as the great healthcare debate came and went, even as the Keystone pipeline won approval -- even as enormous affairs of great and lasting import captivated the nation -- this particular small-town tragedy united a great many Vermonters.
Hundreds rallied in Burlington, and then hundreds more of us knelt down in the street in the capitol city of Montpelier, and hundreds more down south in Brattleboro. In Vermont, "hundreds" is a sizeable denomination -- save for the tractor pulls at the best county fairs, that's about as many people as ever gather in one place at one time.
The arrest of these three was clearly punitive and retaliatory. They weren't just farmworkers -- they were leaders of the community, who had come out into the open to try to win some rights for their brethren. Two were picked up after they left the office of Migrant Justice, the local campaign that tries to improve conditions for the undocumented. The third was on the way to the local courthouse, where state prosecutors were waiting to dismiss an old DUI arrest. It's the type of Trumpish political repression we need to push back at whenever it happens.
The harassment of the undocumented, which makes little sense across America, where they clearly contribute more economically than they cost, is utterly illogical in Vermont. Vermont's unemployment rate in February was 3%, which means it's about as low as anywhere in the known universe.
For employers in the state, the great problem is attracting enough new workers, especially young ones. They tend to stay away in part because Vermont is about as white as it gets, lacking the diversity that young Americans now take as a normal blessing. (Also, your cellphone won't work in about 75% of the state, but that's a different story.)
The dairy economy of Vermont would collapse without these workers. The number of dairy farms has dropped from 15,000 at the end of the second world war to less than a thousand today, but the amount of milk the state produces has remained at the same level -- that is, family farms have been replaced by big industrial dairies.
The work there is hard and unforgiving, and the farmers report they can't find many Americans, at any price, willing to do it. Big industrial dairies are a bad idea, and Vermont will be better off in every way if it continues to build local, small-scale agriculture -- but for the moment it's what we've got.
We can't afford to have people forced into the shadows. Clearly that's Ice's intent, to punish anyone who speaks out. But we need people speaking out, on every front; problems like healthcare or global warming require active citizenship. These three were a productive part of the state, doing volunteer jobs like serving on government taskforces -- doing the work of citizens, which is a moral category before it's a legal one.
The worship of national borders gets increasingly absurd in our world. One of the arrested, Zully Palacios, will likely be deported to her native Peru which, last summer, had the greatest drought and then wildfires in its history, and, as the climate whipsaws, is currently suffering through record floods, with hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.
Vermonters, per capita, have poured a lot more carbon into the atmosphere than Peruvians, and what do you know, it floated right past the national boundaries drawn on a map.
They're our neighbors. For those of us who are Christians, it's written down in black and white: "love your neighbors" is the one commandment Jesus keeps repeating. Since Vermont is the most atheist state in the union, though, it's a good thing that the same commandment is written on the heart of any decent person. Neighbors are what make a place worth living in. Only a creep would drive by the guy in the snowbank.
On Monday, a federal judge in Boston -- with lots and lots of Vermonters singing in the rain outside his courtroom -- freed Zully and Kike on bail. They still face deportation, but for the moment they're home. Home.
Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...