Over the years, Seattle area activist Maru Mora-Villalpando has staged many protests to speak out for undocumented families and for immigrants held in the Tacoma detention center.
This week, the crowd showed up for her.
“This is so overwhelming,” Mora-Villalpando told supporters gathered for a news conference in downtown Seattle on Tuesday morning.
“I just want you to know I’m so grateful,” she said, wiping away tears.
Mora-Villalpando, a Bellingham resident and mother, has now become a target for deportation herself. The deportation notice, formally called a "notice to appear," came in a certified letter last month from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Mora-Villalpando called ICE’s move an “intimidation tactic” and “retaliation” for her political activity. Mora-Villalpando leads the Northwest Detention Center Resistance, which started in 2014 following detainee hunger strikes at the Tacoma facility. The group has continued to help organize hunger strikes and protests since then.
“And because of that, I got this letter,” Mora-Villalpando told the crowd. “Not for any other reason but for the fact that I won’t be quiet. I won’t be silent. I will continue fighting.”
Advocates point out Mora-Villalpando's case is not isolated. Immigration agents also recently detained two well-known immigrant rights activists in New York.
Immigration officials recently stressed that the agency does not retaliate, following questions raised in a Seattle Times report.
ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe did not respond to KUOW questions about whether Mora-Villalpando’s political activity played a role in her case. However, she did confirm that ICE has charged Mora-Villalpando with being unlawfully present in the U.S. and that her case is under review.
“DHS will not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” Pitts O’Keefe wrote in an emailed statement. “All those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to enforcement proceedings, up to and including removal from the United States.”
In recent months, immigration officials have also stated that the agency prioritizes enforcement against serious criminals and individuals who pose a threat to public safety.
Mora-Villalpando said she’s an unusual target for deportation because she’s had no prior contact with ICE, and she has no criminal record. She came to the U.S. on a temporary visa in 1996 then remained here without legal status.
Angelica Chazaro, one of her attorneys, said Mora-Villalpando’s only option to obtain legal status would have required her to return to Mexico for at least 10 years and then apply to come back.
But that was not a viable choice for Mora-Villalpando and daughter Josefina, a U.S. citizen who is now a junior at Western Washington University in Bellingham. She said her family has always planned for this possibility, but it still came as a shock.
“I had nightmares from a young age that one day my mother would be taken by ICE," said Josefina Mora. "On the day that I opened that certified letter from ICE, I felt like that nightmare had come true.”
Chazaro also said that Mora-Villalpando could apply for legal status in the U.S. once her daughter turns 21. She’s 20 now.
Mora-Villalpando said she has no regrets about her years of protest against ICE or her decision to publicly come out as undocumented in 2014 – even if it may have set her up for the fight of her life.
“Bring it on,” she said, as she headed to Tacoma for yet another protest at the detention center where her case could eventually end up.