In June of 2017, the activist Maru Mora-Villalpando gave an interview to a monthly newspaper based in Whatcom County, Washington, in which she discussed her undocumented status. According to a newly released internal document from ICE, this is how she came to attention of the agency, which targeted her for deportation in December. Alarmingly, the document also seems to indicate that she was targeted for her political activities.
“Upon review of the article and available information regarding her situation, it should also be noted that she has extensive involvement with anti-ICE protests and Latino advocacy programs,” it reads. “Villalpando has become a public figure primarily in Whatcom County, where she currently resides.”
Mora-Villalpando, a 47-year-old from Mexico City with no criminal record, has resided in the US since 1996. In her 20-plus years in the country, she has been heavily involved in political activism; last year, after she led a hunger strike to protest conditions at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, the state's attorney general sued the private prison group that runs the complex for violating the state’s minimum wage law.
“I’m being put in deportation proceedings because of my political stance, because of my media presence, because I’ve utilized my freedom of speech,” Mora-Villalpando said during a conference call with reporters on Monday. “This is a pattern of behavior which ICE is developing now under this administration.”
Immigration advocates claim that Mora-Villalpando now joins a growing number of activists from across the US who are facing retaliation from ICE for their political beliefs. In January of this year, ICE officials in New York arrested immigration activist Ravi Ragbir, who serves as the executive director of the immigration activist group New Sanctuary Coalition, during a routine check-in with the agency. Afterwards, Ragbir sued the federal government for violating his First Amendment rights, claiming that ICE officials chose to target him for his political activism. (He was granted a temporary stay from removal on February 9, when a Manhattan Federal Court judge ruled that ICE had violated his rights to due process, noting that his detention by the agency was “unnecessarily cruel.”)
"I’m being put in deportation proceedings because of my political stance, because of my media presence, because I’ve utilized my freedom of speech.”
Ragbir’s former New Sanctuary Coalition colleague, Jean Montrevil, was deported to Haiti in January of this year after spending more than 30 years in the US, despite a pending legal appeal of his deportation status. In an interview with Democracy Now, which was conducted after his deportation, Montrevil claimed that he was targeted for his activist work with New Sanctuary Coalition. “I did everything right,” he said. “Everything they asked me to do, I have done it. So why target me now? It has to be for the New Sanctuary movement.”
Similarly, Mora-Villalpando first went public with her undocumented status several years ago, when she joined other immigration activists to block a road leading to the Northwest Detention Center in 2014. She reportedly expected to be arrested—which would result in her deportation—at the time, but she was not, and she didn’t receive a notice to appear in immigration court until the publication of her interview with Whatcom Watch.
Earlier this month, human rights experts from the United Nations called on the US to protect Mora-Villalpando and other outspoken activists from deportation. “Giving people notice of deportation proceedings appears to be a part of an increasing pattern of intimidation and retaliation against people defending migrants’ rights in the US,” the experts said in a statement. “People working legitimately to protect migrants’ rights must not be restricted or silenced. Their rights must be upheld so they can continue to exercise their vital role.”
ICE has denied any political motives for its actions, calling the UN’s allegations “irresponsible, speculative, and inaccurate” in an emailed statement to the Associated Press. “US 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,” an agency spokesperson said.
Currently, Mora-Villalpando remains out of federal custody and is continuing with her activist work for the detainees of the Northwest Detention Center.