Maru Must Stay!

London protest outside the new US embassy in Battersea
London protest outside the new US embassy in Battersea

HUNDREDS of protesters endured the cold on Sunday at a People’s Tribunal to hold the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) accountable for its culture of secrecy and systemic abuse and to support those in detention at the Northwest Detention Centre in Tacoma, north east of Seattle.

The campaign comes with a rise of retaliation by ICE against activists, including local leader, Maru Mora-Villalpando, as the agency is emboldened to be less transparent, unaccountable and act with increased impunity under the Trump administration.

This was the first of several coordinated People’s Tribunals across the country as a part of the #ICEonTrial campaign.
The People’s Tribunal was part of a number of international actions taking place in US cities, Mexico, the UK and Spain.

Over 30 people picketed the US embassy in London, on Monday 5 February as part of international actions to protest a deportation order against Maru Mora- Villalpando, a Washington-based community activist and mother, and demanded that the US immigration authority withdraw the order and grant Ms Mora-Villalpando the right to stay.

The lively demonstrators, some of whom had been in detention themselves or fought and won against deportation threats, chanted ‘Maru Must Stay’ and ‘Here to stay, here to fight, immigration is our right!’ The London protest was organised by groups led by Women of Colour in the Global Women’s Strike and the All African Women’s Group.

In December last year the Seattle office of (ICE) in December served a ‘Notice to Appear’, otherwise known as a deportation notice, to Maru Mora-Villalpando.

Maru leads Northwest Detention Centre Resistance (NWDCR), an organisation that was co-founded when immigrants held at the Northwest Detention Centre in Tacoma, began a series of hunger strikes in 2014, protesting against their inhumane treatment.

Mora-Villalpando’s efforts have transformed the NWDC from an ignored facility in an out-of-the-way location to a key site of local resistance, with weekly rallies and vigils outside its gates.
In an unprecedented and arbitrary act of retaliation ICE has chosen to target Mora-Villalpando directly. ICE is now purposely targeting people such as Mora-Villalpando who are organising against the agency and the Trump administration’s racially-motivated deportation agenda.

‘ICE only knows about me because of my political work,’ explains Mora-Villalpando.

‘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,’ she concluded.

When the letter arrived at Maru Mora-Villalpando’s home in December, she recognised the logo for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

‘I realised 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 Centre in Tacoma. She and her 20-year-old daughter live in Bellingham.

‘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 on January 16th. ‘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.

In Washington, according to the Seattle Times, 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 US 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 at the Seattle rally 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 US 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 US 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.

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.

Supporters have begun an online petition calling on ICE to rescind its notice to Mora-Villalpando. After the event in downtown Seattle, Mora-Villalpando and other activists were headed to Tacoma for a demonstration in front of the Northwest Detention Centre.

‘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.’

In recent months, the Trump administration has rescinded the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation of hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, Haitians, Nicaraguans.

Congress is facing another deadline – March 5 – to sort out a permanent fix for the 700,000 young people who will lose their deportation deferrals after Trump dismantled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, last September.