South Sound News

'Tacoma is a synonym of detention,' says immigrant activist facing deportation

TACOMA, Wash. — Maru Mora-Villalpando is not backing down.

She will not be silenced.

The 47-year-old undocumented immigrant activist is crystal clear about many things, but she’s resolute about that.

“When I saw the envelope I kind of chuckled,” Mora-Villalpando recalled of the December day when a notice to appear in immigration court arrived at her Bellingham home.

“Like, ‘Oh, they’re trying to stop me. They’re trying to send me a message. … It made me laugh, because we’re not going to stop. I’m not going to stop.”

Mora-Villalpando was scheduled to take her message Wednesday to the University of Puget Sound, where the founding member of Northwest Detention Center Resistance will be welcomed at an event in her honor.

It’s being billed as “Defend the Defender.”

KIRO 7 sent a crew to the event at the University of Puget Sound, and will have a live report for KIRO 7 News at 5:30. Watch with us on-air or here

Mora-Villalpando is in greater need of defending than ever. Facing the prospect of being sent back to Mexico — a country she left more than two decades ago, far from where she raised her now college-age U.S.-born daughter — Mora-Villalpando made her first appearance in immigration court earlier this month. Her next appearance is scheduled in May.

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Having lived in the United States since arriving here in the 1990s on a tourist visa which has long since expired, Mora-Villalpando says she stayed because of economic realities, violence and political corruption in Mexico.

She considers herself — and her predicament — a product of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Among other things, the Clinton-era legislation instituted a 10-year waiting period for reentry for anyone who has been in the United States without legal documentation for a year or more.

“I feel stuck because if I had a chance to go back to Mexico, I know I wouldn’t be able to get a job, and I know I wouldn’t be able to do the work I want to do — human rights — because I would be dead,” she said.

Whether U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement targeted Mora-Villalpando for deportation because of her activism remains a matter of debate, though troubling signs are there.

Mora-Villalpando has maintained a vocal, public presence over the last five years in protests targeting Tacoma’s privately owned Northwest Detention Center. This work has put Mora-Villalpando in the spotlight, for better or perhaps worse.

Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed Mora-Villalpando came to the attention of local ICE officials recently after an interview with her was published in the Whatcom Watch, a small Belingham- based environmental newspaper.

While government officials noted in the documents that Mora-Villalpando had no criminal history, they also characterized the activist as a “public figure” with “extensive involvement in anti-ICE protests and Latino advocacy programs.”

Officials from ICE, meanwhile, have denied that Mora-Villalpando was targeted for her activism, calling any argument to the contrary “irresponsible, speculative and inaccurate.”

Still, that hasn’t stopped Mora-Villalpando’s attorneys from seeking to dismiss the deportation case against her based on these allegations of retaliation. Immigration Judge Brett M. Parchert has said he’ll consider the motion .

It’s under this cloud of uncertainty that Mora-Villalpando will travel to Tacoma this week — a city she knows well from the hours she’s spent protesting the NWDC.

In a press release from UPS, the university described the decision to invite Mora-Villalpando as a gesture from “concerned students, faculty and staff” designed to condemn the deportation case against her as “a new phase in President Trump’s anti-immigrant crusade, essentially silencing protest and free speech by targeting known immigrant rights activists.”

I asked Mora-Villalpando about her decision to publicly reveal herself as undocumented, a move she said was inspired by those who came before her, and those who have been detained at the NWDC since.

“It came to a point where I said we cannot be afraid anymore,” she said. “We have to be out there, as many others have.”

The calculation, of course, was complicated by the electoral developments of 2016 and the rise of Donald Trump, who made a hardline stance on immigration a core tenet of his platform for the presidency.

Well aware of what the Trump’s election could mean for her future, Mora-Villalpando nonetheless has continued to seek the spotlight to bring attention the actions of ICE and the privately run detention center that operates in our midst.

“Back in December, I thought this year would be the year that (ICE) tried to do something against us,” Mora-Villalpando said of the fate of activists like herself under the Trump administration.

“Obviously, they have decided that this is the year that they can retaliate against activism.”

Prescient, perhaps. Or maybe just predictable.

Either way, Mora-Villalpando remains steadfast in her opposition to ICE and her demand that the NWDC be shuttered. She sees the latter not as a lone act but as a potentially significant blow in the larger fight for a change to federal immigration policy.

She’s also cognizant that while her case works its way through immigration court — and she believes she has a good chance of prevailing — she’s benefiting from support, legal resources and media attention that most people entangled in the system simply don’t have.

“This is not about only my daughter and I, it’s about so many families going through this every single day,” Mora-Villalpando said.

Her message — specifically for Tacoma — is blunt: The NWDC needs to be shut down, ICE needs to be dismantled, and we need to help.

“Tacoma is a synonym of detention, and I don’t think people that are in Tacoma would like their city to be recognized for detention,” Mora-Villalpando said.

Whatever happens, one thing seems certain: Mora-Villalpando will not go quietly.

Click here to read the full story on the Tacoma News Tribune.

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