Immigrant activist Maru Mora-Villalpando clutched a megaphone outside of the Seattle Immigration Court on Thursday morning as dozens of supporters gathered around her, coffee cups and handmade signs in tow. Facing the rapidly growing crowd, Mora-Villalpando began her speech in Spanish, followed by the English translation: “I have the right to be here and I have the right to fight for my people: not only Mexicans, not only Latinx, not only immigrants. I’m fighting for human dignity, and if ICE doesn’t like it, that’s their problem.” With her voice steadily rising, she continued, “We need to dismantle ICE. That’s what we need to be focusing on—not to have more deportation proceedings against people like me.”
Before she turned toward the towering building’s 25th floor for her first deportation hearing, Mora-Villalpando expressed confidence to the cheering crowd that she would see them again soon—a fate unlike that of many immigrants in deportation proceedings at the Seattle Immigration Court. Out of the 388 people who received a ruling in deportation proceedings at Seattle Immigration Court during the fiscal year 2018 (October 2017 through December 2017), 223 were ordered to be deported (over 57 percent), according to data from The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
But, at least for now, Mora-Villalpando beat the odds.
On March 15, U.S. Immigration Judge Brett M. Parchert gave U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) until April 9 to file a written response to Mora-Villalpando’s allegations that they were targeting her because of her political action. Parchert will issue a written decision to the motion during her next hearing set for May 22, if not beforehand.
An outspoken undocumented immigrant rights activist originally from Mexico, Mora-Villalpando filed a motion Monday for the court to terminate her deportation proceedings. In the motion, she argued that ICE sent her a notice to appear in immigration court in December because of her local and state-wide campaigns in favor of immigrant detainees. She contended that the alleged retaliation was a violation of her First Amendment rights. Documents released last month written by a Seattle ICE official revealed that Mora-Villalpando came to authorities’ attention following a June 2017 article in the monthly newspaper Whatcom Watch Online, in which she discussed her undocumented status. The document also indicated that her organizing efforts against ICE should be taken into consideration.
During Mora-Villalpando’s hearing, over 100 supporters listened to various speakers—including Nikkita Oliver and Youth Undoing Institutional Racism organizers—talk about the need to end deportations and detention. People held signs that read “No Human is Illegal” and “ICE-Hands Off Maru!” With fists raised, activists chanted “Defend the defender” and “When people’s rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up fight back!”
“If we really want to end deportation, if we really want to keep families together … then we really have to decide how we’re going to spend our tax dollars, how we’re going to spend the income that we get,” said Asha Heru, a Youth Undoing Institutional Racism organizer. “Now, the timing of it all is very imperative, as we know there’s families in here—there’s mothers in here, there children in here—who don’t have time for us to sit around and rally and talk about divestment. Their families are really being impacted right now and have a very good chance of not being able to stay here. That’s on our hands.”
Other speakers said that Mora-Villalpando’s deportation proceedings were indicative of ICE’s pattern of targeting activists. The United Nations agreed last month when it urged the U.S. “to protect and ensure Ms. Villalpando’s rights as a defender and her right to family life.”
The Seattle City Council also released a statement in support of Mora-Villalpando in January. “Targeting of activists and those willing to speak up about injustices by ICE is received by immigrant communities as a clear intent to intimidate and silence immigrant leaders,” the Council stated. “We stand with Mora-Villalpando, and the immigrant community at large, and are deeply troubled by the recent direction of ICE in their enforcement actions that result in families being torn apart and communities across the country being upended and divided.”
Oliver embraced Mora-Villalpando when she emerged from her hearing about an hour after she entered the courthouse. Mora-Villalpando recounted the scene of families gathered for deportation proceedings in the court, which she said broke her heart to see. “The only reason why we’re facing this crisis is because we allowed it. We allowed for ICE to grow this big,” Mora-Villalpando said. “The only solution is to dismantle ICE.”
As the rally concluded and the crowd dispersed, supporters from around the state—some traveling from as far as Bellingham and Forks—embraced Mora-Villalpando before they headed home.
In Mora-Villalpando eyes, the support from her friends and fellow activists outweighs the criticism from opponents who argue that she should face the consequences of breaking U.S. immigration law.
“I don’t waste my time in educating them—they need to educate themselves—that’s not my job. My job is to highlight how Immigration and Customs Enforcement is an agency that is destroying the community and destroying the larger society, and we need to stop them,” Mora-Villalpando told Seattle Weekly after the rally. “For those who are fighting for human rights, we should not be stopped. We should be allowed to do our work.”