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Since President Trump took office, ICE has arrested at least 20 undocumented activists. As that figure continues to rise, advocates across the country increasingly worry they’re being targeted because of their activism — not their immigration status.
Marcos Baltazar, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who sits on the board of the Alabama-based immigrants’ rights group Adelante, was arrested during a routine check-in on Thursday. He and his 18-year-old son are being held at the Etowah County Detention Center, a facility plagued by allegations of human rights abuses.
“We’re inclined to believe that this is an attack on the organizing we’re doing."
Though Adelante has been hesitant to accuse ICE of detaining Baltazar because of his advocacy work, he’s not the first high-profile activist the agency has arrested. The next day, Francisco Silva, a volunteer with the Chicago-based Organized Communities Against Deportations, was also arrested during a bond review Friday even though an immigration judge released him on bond in 2015. And in May, immigration officers arrested an undocumented college student just three days after he read a poem criticizing the agency.
The Department of Homeland Security has also kept tabs on journalists and lawyers in both the U.S. and Mexico, according to documents leaked earlier this year.
“This is definitely a marked shift from past policies where people's involvement in immigrants' rights, civil rights, and labor rights was recognized as a reason for a person to not be targeted,” said Alina Das, the co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at NYU Law School. “That activism was, at minimum, respected, and certainly was not a basis for targeting people.”
“A classic First Amendment problem”
Baltazar and his son, Juan, were put in deportation proceedings shortly after immigrating to the U.S. three years ago. But at the time, a judge ruled they could be released while their cases were being heard as long as they regularly checked in with ICE.
Though Baltazar and Juan have been attending these check-ins for years, according to Adelante, the pair were suddenly arrested during a Thursday morning appointment, and the organization still doesn’t know exactly why ICE decided to arrest them.
“At the moment, we don't have any reason to believe that ICE detaining Marcos and Juan was a retaliatory act, but we do believe it was a politically motivated one,” said Resha Swanson, the policy and communications coordinator for Adelante. ICE did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
Organized Communities Against Deportations, however, does think this week’s arrests are ICE’s attempt to push back against activists across the country.
“We know that they know Francisco is an organizer with [Organized Communities Against Deportations],” Rey Wences, an activist who has known Silva for several years, told VICE News. “We’re inclined to believe that this is an attack on the organizing we’re doing, because we’ve been really vocal about defending our community members even before they get detained.”
This isn’t the first time ICE has arrested immigrant activists during check-ins. Agents arrested Ravi Ragbir, the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, a New York City-based immigrant advocacy group, during a check-in last January. He was transferred to a detention center in Florida.
Neither Baltazar nor Ragbir attended their appointments alone: Both New Sanctuary and Adelante have accompaniment programs where volunteers go to check-ins with immigrants to provide emotional support and, in some cases, to be there when things go wrong.
After his arrest, Ragbir filed a lawsuit against ICE claiming the agency had targeted him for his activism, and an appeals court ultimately sided with him. The judge ruled that “public expression of his criticism, and its prominence, played a significant role in [ICE’s] recent attempts to remove him.” Ragbir has since been released from detention.
His legal team argued that Ragbir’s arrest wasn’t isolated but was instead part of a broader campaign against dozens of undocumented activists. ICE deported New Sanctuary Coalition founder Jean Montrevil a week before Ragbir was arrested, just a few days ahead of his own scheduled check-in. And the week before Montrevil was deported, immigration officers in Colorado detained Eliseo Jurado, the husband of an undocumented woman who was taking sanctuary in a local church.
“In many ways, it's ICE reversing course. They made a decision at one point that a person like Ravi or a person like [Baltazar] did not need to be detained, did not need to be deported,” said Das, the NYU lawyer who represented Ragbir. “If those individuals are not breaking additional laws or violating the terms of their supervision, and then they get picked up because they had spoken out, that is a constitutional problem. It's a classic First Amendment problem.”
Das pointed out that more than 2.9 million immigrants across the country are required to check in with ICE and that the agency doesn’t have the bandwidth — or the legal authority — to detain most of them.
Keeping tabs on organizers
Maru Mora-Villalpando, a founding member of the immigrants’ rights group Mijente, was served with a notice to appear in immigration court — the first step in the deportation process — in December 2017. The ICE field office in Seattle later released a copy of a document explaining that she came to the government’s attention after her “extensive involvement in anti-ICE protests and Latino advocacy programs” popped up online.
It’s possible that Mora-Villalpando and other activists’ arrests were the result of ICE abandoning its former enforcement priorities: During the last few years of the Obama administration, ICE was told to focus on people with criminal records, even though thousands of immigrants with no criminal backgrounds were also swept up over the years. Now, The Trump administration has instructed ICE agents to target all “removable aliens” encountered in the field.
“The thing that’s unclear to me is how planned each of these things are,” Tania Unzueta, the policy director of Mijente, told VICE News. “ICE and USCIS have been given free rein to detain as many immigrants as possible.”
But there’s at least some evidence to suggest that the Department of Homeland Security has kept tabs on activists, both undocumented or otherwise, who help migrants.
In March, NBC San Diego obtained internal DHS files on dozens of journalists and activists the department was monitoring as part of Operation Secure Line, the same operation monitoring last summer’s so-called migrant caravan. The document was titled “San Diego Sector Foreign Operations Branch: Migrant Caravan FY-2019, Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators and Media.”
And a 2018 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union claims that ICE planted informants in Migrant Justice, a Vermont-based immigrant advocacy group, as part of a broader attempt to surveil its members and target them for deportation.
“It's really an example of how ICE has been weaponizing imprisonment against immigrants' rights activists,” Das, the immigration lawyer, said of the recent arrests.
“ICE operates as if it is above the law,” she added. “It forces people, if they are able to have community support and legal assistance, to fight for their rights once their liberty has already been taken away. That's an incredibly oppressive system that I think should disturb every American.”
Correction 8/26 12:00 p.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Rey Wences' name.
Cover image: Ravi Ragbir, a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago who leads the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, listens during a press conference called by city council members on his behalf as he fights deportation, Wednesday Jan. 31, 2018, at New York City Hall. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)