“I never trusted ICE,” immigrant rights advocate Maru Mora-Villalpando said with a laugh. In late December, she received a notice to appear in immigration court—the beginning of deportation proceedings. As an outspoken undocumented immigrant who organizes detainees at Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center, she believes the court order was an act of retaliation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
So when Seattle ICE lawyer Raphael A. Sanchez was charged with wire fraud and identity theft on Monday, she saw it as vindication of the need for her work.
Seattle’s chief ICE attorney allegedly stole the identities of seven people in immigration proceedings between October 2013 to October 2017, according to charging documents filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. In Mora-Villalpando’s eyes, the allegations underscore the agency’s lack of oversight, which enables “egregious behavior.”
“It shows that even those in high positions of power in ICE feel that they can get away with this type of behavior,” Mora-Villalpando told Seattle Weekly on Wednesday. “They have access to a lot of information and they feel that they’re not accountable to anyone.”
Federal prosecutors with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section allege that Sanchez intended to defraud financial institutions including Bank of America Corporation, Citibank, JP Morgan, and others using the identities of immigrants. The court papers revealed that Sanchez forwarded one individual’s energy bill and images of identity documents to his personal email in April 2016.
Monday’s allegations mark the second instance that a high-ranking Seattle ICE official has been accused of misconduct within the past few years. In 2016, Jonathan M. Love, a former assistant chief counsel for ICE in Seattle, was sentenced to 30 days in prison for forging a document to ensure the deportation of an immigrant attempting to stay in the country with his wife, a U.S. citizen.
Mora-Villalpando and other local immigrant rights advocates say that the filing shows that the judicial system is one of the only sources of protection during a time when ICE officials are emboldened to arrest and deport many undocumented immigrants. “The prosecution of ICE Chief Counsel Raphael Sanchez underscores the perception that ICE is a rogue agency,” OneAmerica Executive Director Rich Stolz said in a statement. “When law enforcement officials are the ones being investigated for crimes they have committed, and when long-time community members are being torn from their families due to unauthorized status alone, one must ask whether any increased investment in immigration enforcement makes sense for the nation, or for ICE, an agency that still needs to get its own affairs in order.”
The Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network—which provides legal consultation to detainees and their families via a hotline—echoed the sentiment that the lawsuit is a step in the right direction. “We know that Congress is in a gridlock where they’re not willing to act on the best behalf of our immigrant communities,” said WISN Coordinator Monserrat Padilla. On the other hand, she believes that the lawsuit filed against Sanchez reinforces the immigrant community’s trust in the judicial system. The case was filed a day before a second federal judge blocked the Trump administration from ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Mora-Villalpando sees Sanchez’s resignation from ICE on Monday as a silver lining, because it safeguards her and others in immigration proceedings from also having their identities stolen. “This is a pattern of behavior within an agency that was created to harm, not to do any good,” Mora-Villalpando said, referencing the alleged assaults by guards of three detainees who staged hunger strikes at the Northwest Detention Center last week.
Sanchez is scheduled to appear in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington Thursday, according to the court calendar.