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A farm worker who fled violence in Guatemala to build a life in Vermont may lose it all.
A farm worker who fled violence in Guatemala to build a life in Vermont may lose it all.
A farm worker who fled violence in Guatemala to build a life in Vermont may lose it all.

Published on: 04/12/2024


For the past seven years, Bernardino Suchite Canan, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, has been working his way up the ladder at a family-owned dairy farm in Irasburg.

Canan, 24, managed the milking team of five to six people, coordinated time off for employees and delegated chores. He learned how to breed and inseminate cows, and administered health treatments. Canan became a critical part of the farm's ecosystem, working six days a week, according to one of the farm's owners.

The co-owner of the Irasburg farm wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for Canan last December, after he became enmeshed in removal proceedings with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Irasburg farmer said Canan was a natural-born leader, and "quickly rose to the position of management."

Today, Canan is no longer working on the farm in Irasburg. Instead, he is languishing in ICE detention in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where he has been since November, threatened with removal to Guatemala. Canan shares a cramped cell with five others, using a single toilet in the room, according to Alyssa Shea, a student at the Vermont Law & Graduate School who is helping with Canan's representation in court. He tries to avoid common spaces because of the "prevalence of racial-based conflicts," Shea wrote in an email.

"We've known folks who have gone through there in the past, it's very unpleasant," said Will Lambek of Migrant Justice, a Burlington nonprofit that advocates for farmworkers.

Jill Martin Diaz, an attorney and professor who supervised Shea in Vermont Law School's immigration clinic in Burlington, shared a copy of the farm owner's letter of recommendation with the Burlington Free Press, redacting the name of the farm owner and the farm. The letter was submitted to the judge in immigration court in Boston, where Canan's case is being heard.

"In my overall experience in the agriculture industry, it's truly rare to find someone who treats the business like their own the way Bernardino does," the farm co-owner wrote. "I'd describe him as a stand-up guy and without Bernardino, we have a hole, and morale is down."

Canan fled his hometown of Zatapa, Guatemala, for the United States when he was 16 years old to escape criminal violence.

"He suffered some sort of attack by local criminals in his town when he was 15," said Brett Stokes, a professor at Vermont Law & Graduate School who took Diaz's place supervising students in the immigration clinic. "It took him a bit to recover. He and his family decided it would be an opportune time for him to leave after that."

Since arriving in Vermont, Canan not only worked his way up to middle management at the Irasburg dairy farm, but also entered into a long-term relationship with a fellow farmworker and her two children.

"They all live together in the same home and engage each other on a daily basis," the farm co-owner wrote. "Bernardino is admired here on the farm and for good reason."

Canan's path from middle management to detainee in an ICE facility began on the other side of Lake Champlain. Canan and his partner, Maricruz, along with her son were visiting a friend at a dairy farm near Champlain, New York, according to Shea, when they were pulled over by local police. Ten minutes after police released them, they were stopped by ICE.

"They don't know why they were stopped, there was no documentation offered them why they were stopped," Diaz said. "This is very scary to be undocumented and have contact with law enforcement. You live in fear of this exact thing."

In Vermont, undocumented immigrants are theoretically protected because the state has a statewide non-cooperation agreement, preventing Vermont State Police from collaborating with Customs and Border Patrol. Lambek cautioned, however, that even though every police department in the state has adopted Vermont's non-cooperation policy, "we see violations."

Diaz has since left Vermont Law School to become the first executive director of the Vermont Asylum Assistance Project, which works with undocumented immigrants seeking asylum. Stokes took over for her supervising the immigration clinic and Canan's case.

Canan believes the owner of the dairy farm in Champlain, New York, called police, who then called ICE. Police said a complaint had come from the farm, but didn't specify who made the complaint.

"We don't know who made the call to the cops or whether it was racially motivated − a car of brown people, oh drug smugglers," Lambek said. "I visited a lot of farms. Nobody ever called the cops on me. Take that for what you will."

Now Canan and his family were on ICE's radar.

"ICE takes them to the Enforcement and Removal Operations office, which in our district is in St. Albans," Diaz said. "They take fingerprints and put them in the system. Basically they have said, 'We're now aware you're here in violation of immigration laws, and we're charging you with removability.' They initiate those proceedings before the immigration court (in Boston)."

Because Vermont's jails are full, Canan wasn't detained but instead was given an order of supervision, which allowed him to remain working on the Irasburg farm while he fought removal proceedings in immigration court.

"Meanwhile you have to show up regularly or communicate regularly with Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) so (they) know you haven't absconded," Diaz said.

Canan was allowed to check in with ERO by email. Meanwhile, Diaz and her students discovered a silver lining in his case. Canan had been the victim of a violent break-in at his home on the farm in Irasburg earlier in 2022, sustaining injuries.

"I think there was a struggle to keep the person out and the door hit (Canan) in the face," Diaz said.

The state's attorney was prosecuting the case, and Canan was cooperating as a witness, which meant he could qualify for a U visa and potentially a Green Card, allowing him to live and work permanently in the United States. Diaz explained the theory behind the U visa is that undocumented immigrants are understandably afraid to ask for law enforcement protection when they need it.

"The law says, 'OK, cooperate without fear, we will actually give you a pathway to regularize status now,'" Diaz said. "It's protection against removal. You get work authorization. You get a social security number. You can bank. You can apply for credit. You can live your life."

That's the good news. The bad news is there's more than a 10-year wait list for a U visa.

Still, the U visa was reason for hope. Then the unimaginable happened. Only a few days after coming to the attention of ICE, Canan drove into a ditch in the Northeast Kingdom in a single-car accident.

"He waited on the scene for police to come and he was charged with driving under the influence," Diaz said.

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Canan and his partner testified he had never driven drunk before, but was feeling the stress of his interaction with ICE, compounded by the anniversary of a violent attack on his mother in 2021, which ultimately resulted in her death.

Sarah Osten, director of Latin American and Caribbean studies at the University of Vermont, said gang violence is endemic in Guatemala, which suffered a 36-year civil war that didn't end until 1996.

"It was a war in which 200,000 people died, 80% of them indigenous," Osten said. "The United Nations declared it a genocide against the Maya."

The war ended, but the societal violence didn't. To make matters worse, Osten said, Guatemala sits in a strategic location for the drug trade.

"Drugs are part of a larger array of organized criminal activity in Guatemala," Osten said. "Guatemala and the rest of Central America have the geographic misfortune of being a land bridge between the cocaine-producing region and drug cartels in Mexico and the main market in the United States. So far, no one has found an amount of drugs they can't sell in the United States."

More: 10 of Vermont's immigrant farmworkers petition ICE to stop their deportations

Osten said gangs prey on families like Canan's, extorting them with murder threats, especially against children. Those on the receiving end of threats understand police are working with the gangs, and reporting the threats will only put them in more grave danger.

"Most people think of a rich or powerful person being shaken down, but gangs shake down the most vulnerable members of society," she said. "The rich and powerful in Guatemala have bodyguards and high walls around their houses."

For his next check-in with Enforcement and Removal Operations, Canan was asked to come into the office in St. Albans.

"We're terrified, what is going on?" Diaz remembered. "This is against policy and against protocol. We're wondering if they'd done their homework, if they'd run his fingerprints and found out about these pending (DUI) charges."

Diaz and her team negotiated with ICE to accompany Canan to the office with the understanding they just needed some fresh "file metrics."

Once in St. Albans, Canan was taken away for fingerprinting. Diaz and her team were asked to wait in the waiting room. Canan was detained, citing the DUI charges.

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With no room in Vermont jails, Canan was on his way to ICE detention in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where he remains today, threatened with deportation back to Guatemala. Stokes and his team of student lawyers have failed twice to get Canan bonded out. His pending DUI has made him a threat to the community in the eyes of the immigration court judge.

Stokes was optimistic ahead of Canan's second bid for bail, as the state of Vermont had agreed to put him into a diversion program on his pending DUI charges, which means the charges would not have gone on his record once he completed the program. It seemed like an opening.

"Unfortunately, Bernardino was, again, denied bond based on 'dangerousness,'" Stokes said. "A really tough loss after such a hard-fought battle to get this hearing. Bernardino remains in detention and will be fighting for an opportunity to remain in the U.S. through an application for asylum based on his fear to return to Guatemala."

Stokes is under no illusions about the tough road ahead.

"Fear claims based on criminal and gang activity are hard to prove," he said. "They're hard cases."

Canan's final hearing is scheduled for April 17.

"It has been so painful to have Bernardino taken from us," Maricruz said in a statement translated by Migrant Justice. "I don't want anyone to feel the pain that I'm feeling. He is like a father to my children. The only thing I want is to see Bernardino free and back home with our family."

Contact Dan D’Ambrosio at 660-1841 or [email protected]. Follow him on X @DanDambrosioVT.

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