Maru Mora-Villalpando received the notice just before Christmas: a certified letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) called a “notice to appear,” starting off deportation proceedings.
This was a deliberate tactic, Mora-Villalpando said, used to silence her and her years of activism fighting for immigrant rights, particularly working against the Northwest Detention Center, a facility in Tacoma that can hold up to 1,575 people, making it one of the largest immigration prisons in the United States.
She was just one of several activists in the past month undergoing deportation efforts by ICE. Ravi Ragbir, an immigrants- rights activist in New York, has been detained until he is deported. Jean Montrevil was deported to Haiti in January.
If ice’s attempt was to silence or slow down activism, it hasn’t worked. The detention and deportation of Ragbir and Montrevil sparked protests on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in New York that led to the arrest of several people, including members of the New York City Council.
And Mora-Villalpando has only amplified her work, traveling to the nation’s capital for the anniversary of President Donald Trump’s inauguration to continue protesting harsh immigration laws.
Mora-Villalpando spoke with Real Change Jan. 19 from the District of Columbia by phone to discuss her experience.
RELATED ARTICLE: ICE attempts to deport immigrant activists are a threat to all of us
Tell us how you learned about the notice to appear that Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent you? What did you think when you received that?
Well, first of all, almost nobody comes to my house unless I know because my address is not public. And second when I saw the logo on the envelope, I realized immediately what it was. I figured that ICE wanted to start a petition proceeding against me. I kind of laughed inside thinking, so they don’t come to my door they send me a letter instead. But I also thought immediately, this is a warning. A warning to stop my work or slow down my work of fighting alongside people detained for our rights and for justice and liberation and they obviously don’t like what I’m doing and they’re trying to stop me.
Since you received that order, I’ve just seen so many others who have been detained or deported and sometimes very suddenly: Ravi Ragbir and Jean Montrevil in New York. What does it tell you about what’s going on with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement that all of this is happening?
Well it’s obviously a very clear direction that they have taken, which is to become a political repression apparatus. We’ve said again and again: ICE was not created to help our communities. That’s not a social service agency. You know, we have departments at federal level that are supposed to be for people’s lives: The Department of Housing, the Department of Education, right? This is not such. This is actually a department that was created against us. Against immigrants and really against the whole society. Under this new administration, it’s obvious that the war on immigrants that was declared in January last year with the first executive actions, being very specific xenophobic and racist orders to remove us from the country show that now also Trump has decided to utilize ICE as a police force to silence a dissident. And especially for us in the immigrant justice movement, we are an easy target because of our immigration status.
It would seem to me that actions like this — the deportations, the notices to appear, using immigration enforcement in this way — would have a really chilling effect on activism. How is it changing or informing your work?
We kind of figured this would happen. I mean, I’m in D.C. today. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the inauguration where hundreds of people were arrested and actually today there was a hearing for some of them. I think the administration, this regime, showed from day one that they are not going to accept anybody that speaks against them or does anything against them. And so, we’ve been ready for this for a really long time. The thing that is important to know is that the reason why they want to silence us is because we have been very effective. We don’t like to do this. People detained risk their deportation, their cases, they risk their lives when they organize. But they know that they have do it. So we do it too, knowing that there’s a risk. But they must. Because if we don’t do it, things are going to get worse. So when they are sending these warnings to be quiet, to stop doing what we’re doing, the effect is the opposite. They’re just making us stronger. And I think this was shown when we decided to go public with my case. And the response of the community, not only Washington state but beyond, has been overwhelmingly supportive, and positive and people are ready to continue the fight. I think if ICE believes we’re going to stop, they’re completely wrong.
It was in 2014 that you revealed in your work that you were undocumented and I wondered, with actions like this, does it affect how other undocumented folks are advocating for change. Could it discourage people from following in your footsteps in that way?
Yeah, exactly that’s what ICE would like to do. And that’s why now more than ever we cannot stop. We’re not telling people to do exactly the things we do. It’s a personal decision how people want to engage, and it’s really a personal responsibility and commitment to decide whether people want to fight for justice in which areas and how. But I think it’s important for us not so much to give examples to other people — look this is what we’re doing, you should do it — not so much. I guess our commitment is more to the people detained that we have been working with in collaboration than anybody else. Every time we’re in the detention center we said it: Our responsibility, our commitment is to the people detained. And this work is not going to stop. If what ICE is doing frightens people outside, well, yeah, that’s what ICE does and they do it very well. We do the opposite of that, and I think by continuing the fight there will be people that will know what they have to do, and I’m pretty sure that there will be people that will not be afraid and they will join us.
What kinds of things are you seeing at the Northwest Detention Center now and what is the nature of your work there right now?
Let me tell you. I receive calls from the detention center, from people that are saying that they’re worried about me. And they’ve been telling me that I’m not alone. And this just fills my heart, because that’s exactly what we chant outside every time we’re there. Our chant is, “You’re not alone.” Because they know that and we have created such an amazing relationship with people detained. What is a respectful relationship, it’s not a top-down, it’s not charity, it’s really a respectful understanding that we follow their leadership. Now they feel that they worry about us outside and they want to do something. They asked, “Is there anything we can do?” So that shows that the work of the Northwest Detention Center is just going to grow. And people detained are not going to just let it happen. We’re going to continue work as we have planned already. We have our upcoming tribunal against the detention center on Feb. 4 at noon. We expect more people to come. I think this is the third year we’ve done it, and usually we get at least 200 people coming; we hope that we get more this coming Feb. 4. I’m here in D.C. because there are other people who believe, like me, that they should do this kind of work. So we hope that there are tribunals done in other cities as well. And we hopefully will be announcing a national campaign against ICE especially in bringing them to a people’s tribunal in different cities where we are going to use testimonies from people detained and formerly detained in some cases that expose why we need to shut down these detention centers and why ICE needs to be dismantled. So our work is just going to get bigger and better.
A lot of people might say that this is why we need to get Democrats in the White House, but Democrats haven’t been perfect allies on immigration and deportation either. So I just wondered if you could talk about the difference between the current administration and when Barack Obama was in office. How different is it?
Well, you know, we warned Obama before he left that you’re leaving this huge machine of detention and deportation in the hands of a xenophobic, White supremacy group of people. So the only difference I guess is that ICE didn’t feel so emboldened to do what they like to do, which is to disrupt people’s lives. At least during the Obama administration we were able to shame the administration, even the Department of Homeland Security top officials were reachable. At least when we talked to them and said look what your agents in the field are doing, they responded to that. Now ICE, it’s a rogue agency. They’re not accountable to anybody. And, again, Democrats had the chance in the past to stop the situation from happening, and they didn’t. And now we’re facing the consequences of the lack of response from the Democrats.
What kind of action would you like to see from people who have the privilege of citizenship?
We know that these attacks are not exclusively against immigrants or activists in the immigrant justice movement. These are attacks against everybody that doesn’t agree with this regime. For those that have the privilege of saying that they are U.S. citizens, and they’re not going to be threatened with deportation, I think it’s time to step it up. Marching is good, but actually taking real action and following the leadership of those oppressed is better. A lot of people that come our way always come with different ideas. We don’t need new ideas. We just need people ready to follow our leadership. We know what we’re doing. We follow the leadership of people detained. We don’t question them, we just support their decisions. We come together to create a strategy. And we’d like people that want to join us to actually follow that leadership and decide what it is they can do and what it is they can risk. Because we’re getting into a point in history where, if people want to continue just being comfortable, all they’re going to do is end up being targeted sooner or later. That’s why to me it’s important to continue the work, because it’s not about whether, you know, like people say all the time, “Oh they’ll come for me today and they’re going to come for you tomorrow.” I don’t want anybody to be a target tomorrow. That’s why I’m going to continue the work.
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