ICE targeted immigrant-rights activist after news report

Maru Mora Villalpando

Maru Mora Villalpando speaks to supporters during a press conference in Seattle, Jan. 16, 2018. (Enrique Cerna/KCTS 9)

Newly released documents on nationally known immigrant-rights activist Maru Mora Villalpando, currently under threat of deportation, show federal officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are learning about undocumented immigrants through the press and may even choose to target those who are active in protests.

In documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, with the help of Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, government officials explicitly state that Villalpando came to the attention of ICE’s local office “after an interview was published in the ‘Whatcom Watch,’” a grassroots environmental newspaper in Bellingham.

The government official also notes that although Villalpando has no criminal history, she “has extensive involvement in anti-ICE protests and Latino advocacy programs” and has “become a public figure.”

Devin Theriot-Orr of Sunbird Law LLC, a Seattle-based immigration law practice, has also filed a FOIA request on behalf of other immigrant-rights activists. According to a press release, the law firm is requesting documents that "might show other instances where ICE is pursuing deportation proceedings against individuals who made public statements to the press regarding their immigration status," as well as "others who are involved in 'anti-ICE protests' or 'immigrant rights' activism.”

The FOIA request was sent to ICE, as well as other government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Theriot-Orr said he expects the agencies to respond in a timely manner but is prepared to take them to court if they fail to do so.

In a call with reporters on Monday, Theriot-Orr said Villalpando's predicament is likely not an "isolated incident” but a consequence of ICE's “broader strategy.”

“I think the thing that was really shocking to me about this," Theriot-Orr said, referring to newly released documents on Villalpando, "is how blunt the administration is about its tactics.”

“I don't think they can base enforcement actions primarily on First Amendment-protected activity,” Theriot-Orr added. Theriot-Orr also argued that an immigration judge would look unfavorably upon such cases brought forward by ICE.

“These documents show that ICE actions are a direct attack on our organizing and freedom of speech," Villalpando said. "We demand to know how far this practice spreads and who else they are targeting for deportation.”

This isn’t the first time ICE has been suspected of targeting an undocumented immigrant after he or she spoke to the press. In December, The Seattle Times reported ICE had detained undocumented immigrant Baltazar “Rosas” Aburto Gutierrez after he had spoken to reporters about immigration officials arresting his girlfriend.

In addition, previously released documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show the Washington State Department of Licensing shared Villalpando's information with ICE. An email dated Dec. 7, 2017 shows DOL sent Villalpando’s application for a driver’s license to the federal agency. The department also sent ICE a copy of her license. Exactly one week later, Villalpando, who first revealed she is undocumented in 2014, received a notice to appear in immigration court, a first step toward deportation.

At the time, Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said only that Villalpando had "been charged by ICE with being unlawfully present in the United States, and her case is currently under legal review."

"All those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to enforcement proceedings, up to and including removal from the United States,” O'Keefe said. 

In a statement on Monday, ICE spokesperson Lori K. Haley said the agency "does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make. Any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible, speculative and inaccurate." 

Haley added that the agency "focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security." 

In January, The Seattle Times detailed the regular cooperation between the Department of Licensing and ICE. In 2017, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee had signed an executive order saying the state did not want to “utilize state employees as agents of the federal immigration services.” After The Times published its report, a deputy director at DOL resigned, and in January, the agency announced it would stop requiring information about a person's place of birth.

Some advocates have also called for the resignation of DOL Director Pat Kohler and for Inslee to appoint an independent council to ensure state agencies do not share information with immigration officials and to guarantee that there are consequences if they do.

Villalpando, 47, an outspoken and oft-quoted immigration activist who has appeared on news channels such as MSNBC and Democracy Now, has been an advocate in the region for about two decades. She is known as a key organizer of protests at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

Villalpando is one of several well-known activists recently targeted by ICE. ICE recently detained Ravi Ragbir, executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City. ICE also picked up Eliseo Jurado, the husband of Ingrid Latorre, who is fighting deportation as she takes sanctuary in a Colorado church. Jean Montrevil, co-founder of the New Sanctuary Coalition, was also detained.

The targeting of immigrant-rights activists has even caught the attention of United Nations human rights experts who, citing what "appears to be a part of an increasing pattern of intimidation and retaliation," have called on the U.S. to protect them from deportation.

"People working legitimately to protect migrants' rights must not be restricted or silenced," read a recent statement from the Geneva-based U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Lilly Fowler

Lilly Fowler

Lilly Fowler is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where she focused on race, immigration and other issues.