Zully Palacios Rodriguez, a member of the immigrant advocacy group Migrant Justice, speaks to a crowd outside the federal court in Burlington, Vt., Nov. 14, 2018.
Zully Palacios Rodriguez, a member of the immigrant advocacy group Migrant Justice, speaks to a crowd outside the federal court in Burlington, Vt., Nov. 14, 2018.

An immigrant advocacy group is suing the U.S. government over what it claims are years of surveillance and harassment in retaliation for the organization's pro-immigrant activism.

The lawsuit, filed Nov. 14 by Vermont-based Migrant Justice, alleges that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) "targeted, surveilled, and spread disinformation" about the group and arrested at least 20 of its members.

"In the course of its advocacy, Migrant Justice has loudly and publicly criticized U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE has retaliated, and continues to retaliate, by disrupting Plaintiffs' advocacy and infringing upon their First Amendment rights," the plaintiffs allege in the lawsuit.

ICE responded to VOA in a statement Friday, saying, "In keeping with ICE agency policy that we do not offer comment on pending litigation, we are going to decline to comment on this legal action."

The agency referred VOA to statement made by ICE Acting Deputy Director Matthew Albence in a March 2018 interview with National Public Radio: "U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make. Any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible, speculative and inaccurate. ... ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security."

Migrant Justice lobbies for labor rights and has campaigned to prevent deportations, as well as to create identification cards that would allow Vermont residents to drive in the state regardless of immigration status. And like many U.S. groups that champion the rights of migrant and undocumented workers, Migrant Justice has members who are themselves undocumented.

The Trump administration has put a public and concerted focus on detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants, and some of Migrant Justice's own have been detained in the last 18 months, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court this week. But the alleged infiltration and surveillance of the organization predates Trump's tenure, the lawsuit says, claiming Migrant Justice has been targeted since 2014.

While the lawsuit is new, the public allegations by Migrant Justice are not. It, along with the ACLU, has raised the issue that ICE is targeting activists before, and filed a lawsuit in 2017, accusing ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection of targeting the organization's activists. That case remains open.

Albence, executive associate director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, as are U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, ICE Acting Director Ronald Vitiello, and Wanda Minoli, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles.