The activist who ICE wants “disappeared”

January 18, 2018

Steve Leigh and Nicole Colson report on the campaign to stop the deportation of leading Seattle immigrant rights activist Maru Mora-Villalpando.

MARU MORA-Villalpando is facing deportation after 25 years of living in the U.S.--and she says that she's being targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) specifically because of her role as an activist fighting for immigration reform.

In addition to the lengthy amount of time she's been in the U.S., Mora-Villalpando also has a 20-year-old daughter who was born in the U.S. Yet despite these longstanding ties, on December 20, Mora-Villalpando received a knock on her door and was handed a letter from ICE ordering her to appear in immigration court at an unspecified date for deportation proceedings.

Mora-Villalpando is an outspoken fighter and leader of the Northwest Detention Center Resistance (NWDCR), which was established when immigrants held at the Northwest Detention Center began a series of hunger strikes in 2014 protesting inhumane treatment. Thanks to Mora-Villalpando, the Northwest Detention Center has become "a key site of local resistance, with weekly rallies and vigils outside its gates," according to a press release from NWDCR.

Maru Mora-Villalpando speaks at a protest outside the Northwest Detention Center
Maru Mora-Villalpando speaks at a protest outside the Northwest Detention Center

She has been in the U.S. since she overstayed a tourist visa in 1996 after fleeing violence in Mexico. "I just figured, I don't want to die, so I decided to come here," she explained to the South Seattle Emerald in early December. "I came with a tourist visa and my visa ran out, and I stayed."

Now, say she and her supporters, Maora-Villalpando is one of a growing number of immigrant rights activists who are being targeted by the Trump administration specifically because they are standing up to defend the idea that no human being is illegal.

"To me, it's a clear sign that ICE wants me to stop my job," she told the Seattle Times. "It was an intimidation tactic."

As a NWDCR press release detailed, the move to deport Mora-Villalpando is "a sign that ICE has gone beyond seeking to enforce the immigration laws. ICE is now purposely targeting people such as Mora-Villalpando who are organizing against the agency and the Trump administration's racially motivated deportation agenda."

As Mora-Villalpando said in a statement:

What you can do

Sign a petition calling on ICE to rescind the deportation order for Maru Mora-Villalpando.

ICE only knows about me because of my political work. I have spoken out to defend immigrants in detention and shared my story as an undocumented mother. I have sat in meetings with immigration officials and challenged their practices. They are an agency whose actions have already been devastating to my community. But with the letter they delivered to my house, they are showing themselves to be an agency that silences any opposition to their practices.

Nor is Mora-Villalpando the only activist who has been targeted for deportation seemingly as a result of their work in defending immigrant rights.

The NWDCR cited a Seattle Times report in December that Baltazar Aburto Gutierrez was detained by ICE after he appeared in an article speaking out about the deportation of his girlfriend. The ICE agent who arrested him reportedly told him, "My supervisor asked me to come find you because of what appeared in the newspaper."

Additionally, notes NWDCR, "[o]ther activists across the country have also been targeted by the federal agency, including Ravi Ragbir and Jean Montrevil, two leaders in New York's immigrant rights advocacy community."

Explaining the reasons why ICE sees Mora-Villalpando's activism as a particular threat, the NWDCR noted that she has been called a "modern-day freedom fighter":

Since [2014], Mora-Villalpando has continued to support and amplify the organizing efforts against ICE and the GEO Group (the private contractor that operates the ICE facility, the West Coast's largest) from within the Northwest Detention Center. Buoyed by the support efforts of Mora-Villalpando and the NWDCR, people detained continue their struggle to be heard and demand justice, with nine hunger strikes at the NWDC between April and November of last year alone.

As a result of these efforts, two Washington state representatives have introduced federal legislation to reform detention, and Washington state's attorney general sued the GEO Group, citing the hunger strikes as the reason.

EVEN AS she faces deportation, Maru Mora-Villalpando is refusing to be cowed into silence.

On January 16, she and 150 supporters rallied at the Seattle Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to oppose ICE's attempt to deport her and to demand a withdrawal of her "notice to appear." Supporters carried signs reading "ICE, hands off Maru!" "Defend the defender!" " Back off bullies!" and "We need Maru in Seattle."

Mora-Villalpando expressed her gratitude for the support. Looking at different portions of the crowd, she repeated "Gracias!" and expressed her determination not to give up:

I won't be silent! I won't be quiet! I have all your support. Too many people face deportation without this support. We need to organize for all of them, not just for me. ICE has joined the police state. They are coming for me now, but they'll come for you later. We have to continue fighting!

To back up her call to defend all immigrants, she invited supporters to a rally at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma immediately following her defense rally in Seattle.

It was also announced at the rally that the University of Washington's Center for Human Rights has filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to reveal the extent of collaboration between the Washington State Department of Licensing and ICE, which may have led to ICE obtaining Mora-Villalpando's home address and other personal information.

The speaker from the Center noted that this cooperation between agencies is unconstitutional. "We've allowed this to go on far too long," the speaker said.

The day before the rally--in response to a Seattle Times report that personal information was being given to immigration authorities 20 to 30 times a month--the agency announced that it would no longer provide such information without a court order.

But that change comes too late for Maru Mora-Vallalpando.

In addition to the total disruption of Maru's life and that of her family and friends that this deportation would cause, there is real fear for her safety.

At the rally, one former political prisoner noted that Mexico would not be safe for Maru, citing the U.S.-sponsored "war on drugs" and the resulting escalation of violence in Mexico. The activist noted: "If deported, [Maru Mora-Villalpando] runs the risk of death. We need to stop this deportation by any means necessary!"

Supporters are determined to prevent Mora-Villalpando's deportation and have launched a petition drive for her to stay in the U.S., in addition to planning more rallies. We have to send a message that the deportation machine can't take Maru.

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