When the letter arrived at Maru Mora-Villalpando’s home in December, she recognized the logo for Immigration and Customs Enforcement immediately.
“I realized immediately what it was without even opening it,” Mora-Villalpando said. As she signed a receipt for the letter, Mora-Villalpando's 20-year-old daughter opened it. Inside was a notice to appear in immigration court, the first step toward a potential deportation.
Mora-Villalpando is a well known activist who has led actions at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. She and her 20-year-old daughter live in Bellingham. Crosscut first reported on the notice this morning.
“To me, it was a clear sign ICE wants me to stop my job,” Mora-Villalpando told a crowd of supporters in front of ICE’s Homeland Security investigation field office in downtown Seattle today. “They want all of us here to stop. It’s an intimidation tactic.”
But, Mora-Villalpando told the crowd later, “I am not going to stop.”
Mora-Villalpando's daughter, Josefina, said she had “nightmares from a young age that one day my mother would be taken by ICE. On the day that I opened that certified letter from ICE… I felt like that nightmare had come true.”
At least two other immigration activists are fighting deportation, including both the co-founder and executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, and the husband of a woman from Peru currently trying to avoid deportation in Colorado. Nationwide, ICE oversees 200 jails and other facilities where immigrants can be held. Many detainees do not have legal representation.
Here in Washington, the Seattle Times broke the news last week that the state licensing department regularly shared information with ICE. Washington State issues driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. The information that the Department of Licensing shared with ICE included the ID someone used to apply for a license. In cases where the ID is a foreign passport, that information can reveal that someone is not a U.S. resident. Since the Seattle Times report, the department has said it won’t release personal information to ICE without a court order (though it’s not clear whether the type of ID used to apply will still be shared). Supporters who gathered today denounced the Department of Licensing practices and Mora-Villalpando's potential deportation.
Mora-Villalpando said she has lived in the United States for 25 years. Because of provisions in a 1996 immigration law, if Mora-Villalpando were to leave the U.S. now and try to reenter legally, she could face a 10-year bar. Mora-Villalpando says she has “never had contact with ICE,” meaning she’s never been involved in a criminal case that could trigger her deportation. Receiving a notice to appear without prior contact with the agency is “very unusual,” she said.
Nestora Salgado, an anti-cartel activist who was imprisoned in Mexico for nearly two years before returning to Seattle, told the crowd, “This is not a time for Maru to return to Mexico.”
“I can tell you from experience that people deported to Mexico right now are running a risk of death,” Salgado said. “I can tell you that we’ve been picking up bodies or even pieces of bodies of people who’ve been deported from the U.S. back to Mexico. Maru’s deportation, for this reason, needs to be stopped by any means necessary.”
The next step for Mora-Villalpando will be a hearing in immigration court, but it’s unclear how soon that could happen. Her notice did not include a hearing date. In the meantime, she could be detained at any time, according to Angélica Cházaro, a University of Washington law professor supporting Mora-Villalpando. Cházaro said she suspects ICE targeted Mora-Villalpando because of her political activity. Evidence of that may present some “legal avenues” to challenge her deportation, Cházaro said.
“ICE only knows about Maru because of her political activity,” Cházaro said. Mora-Villalpando said she suspects ICE may have obtained information about her from the Department of Licensing.
A spokesperson for ICE has not responded to a request for comment. UPDATE: In a statement, ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe said Mora-Villalpando "has been charged by ICE with being unlawfully present in the United States and her case is currently under legal review." Pitts O'Keefe did not directly respond to the claim that ICE targeted Mora-Villalpando because of her political activity. "All those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to enforcement proceedings, up to and including removal from the United States," Pitts O'Keefe said.
Alejandra Gonza, director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the UW School of Law, said her organization has filed three records requests with the state and federal government seeking more information about ICE and the Washington State Department of Licensing. “What we need to understand is how widespread these practices are,” Gonza said.
Supporters have begun an online petition calling on ICE to rescind its notice to Mora-Villalpando. After today’s event in downtown Seattle, Mora-Villalpando and other activists were headed to Tacoma for a demonstration in front of the Northwest Detention Center.
“The work is not stopping,” Mora-Villalpando said. “We’re not going to sit down and cry and feel bad because that’s what they want.”