By Elly McKenna
“I’m out here because I am outraged that our government is throwing kids in cages, detaining, arresting, harassing, and racially profiling immigrants and refugees,” said Ashley Smith, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and activist in Burlington, Vt., raising his voice over echoes of “No hate, no fear! Everyone is welcome here!” being chanted from afar.
Smith was just one of more than 200 people holding signs, chanting, and rallying against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, in Williston, Vt. The protest took place at the Maple Tree Place green, sandwiched between Majestic 10 Cinemas and an AT&T store, adjacent to ICE’s national database. It lasted for about two hours. Smith, along with various college students, local community members, singers, and speakers gathered outside ICE’s unmarked offices located just 15 minutes away from Saint Michael’s College campus to peacefully protest against the organization’s mission and actions.
Many college students said they attended the protest to shine a light on the proximity of this center.
“We’re here today just to spread awareness of the issue at hand and the fact that so few people know that the national database for ICE is here in Williston, really in our own backyard,” said Abby Poisson ’22, Secretary of the Peace and Justice Club at St. Michael’s. Poisson along with Alexyah Dethvongsa ’22, the Vice President of the Peace and Justice Club at St. Michael’s, organized a college van to transport 20 interested students to the protest.
“We helped organize students get to this event because we felt like it was a really good opportunity to spread awareness of this issue on campus,” Dethvongsa said.
According to the 2018 ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report, located on the Department of Homeland Security website, DHS recorded 158,581 administrative arrests, 66 percent of those being convicted criminals. In addition, ICE reports having removed 256,085 illegal aliens of whom 57 percent were convicted criminals. ICE’s mission is to, “promote homeland security and public safety through the criminal and civil enforcement of federal laws that are directed towards customs, trade, immigration, and border control,” as is declared in their mission statement (Federal Law Enforcement).
Despite numerous attempts in person and over the phone, ICE declined to comment on the subject matter of the recent protest. Even after searching for and finding their unmarked offices in a shopping plaza in Williston, Defender reporters were unable to make it through the locked front door and were solely allowed to speak to the man at the front desk through a microphone.
Many of those who attended the protest have strong feelings and opinions against the organization’s mission and its reported actions. “I’m here because it’s ridiculous that the rights of migrants are not being seen as basic human rights and the fact that community members are being taken,” said Julia Megan ’20. This was Megan and Mackenzie Murdoch’s second immigration protest attended in Vermont. Murdoch, an active youth organizer with Women’s March Vermont in Burlington was arrested at a similar peaceful protest in the same Williston location this past July with Megan.
“There were 19 of us that got arrested for protesting, and they had DHS come out and respond,” said Murdoch. “They brought bomb-sniffing dogs, and they had a super militaristic response to a peaceful protest.” She explained that she came to this additional protest because this issue needs to be talked about and addressed. She added, “I’m a white woman who is queer, but I’m privileged and able to be getting arrested for problems like this. Using privilege is a really big thing that we need to be doing because people who this impacts directly obviously can’t be getting into non-violent civil disobedience because it risks deportation.”
With an issue so prominent in today’s world and a national database so close to St. Michael’s, it wasn’t surprising to hear loud and powerful music, speeches, and shouting in Williston, Vt. Chants such as “Vermont will fight for equal rights!” rang through the breezy fall air.
What kind of changes did protest attendees long to see? “We should be abolishing ICE, abolishing the Department of Homeland Security, and taking all that money and investing it in things we need: jobs that are just jobs that do good things for society, that are invested in education, that are invested in healthcare, that actually would make the lives of people in the United States and internationally far better,” Smith said. He proved firm and articulate in his beliefs. “I’m out here to protest the absolute diversion of all the money that should go to social goods, into social evils, and to demand ICE has got to go and we should open the borders and let the refugees and immigrants in.”