I Stood Up to ICE, and Now They’re Trying to Deport Me

“After years of defending others, I am now the one in need of defense. ICE seeks to chill free expression and silence immigrant advocates by using its deportation powers to intimidate and deport me and those I support.”

When I imagined U.S. immigration authorities coming for me, I never thought it would be by certified mail. And yet this is how it happened—a few days before Christmas, a knock on my door led to the delivery of a letter, informing me that I was being placed in deportation proceedings.

My daughter, who opened the letter, started to cry. I immediately saw this for what it was: their way of trying to intimidate me. I felt a mix of emotions, but mostly I felt angry.

I’ve no doubt that my political activity in support of immigrants held in detention centers has made me a target. And I’m not the only activist who has been targeted in this way.

I have dedicated my life to the fight for immigrant justice, demanding an end to detention and deportation. None of the usual triggers for deportation—contact with the police, raids, prior deportations—apply in my case. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement only knows about me because of my political work.

With the letter delivered to my house, ICE has officially made the leap from a law enforcement agency to a political repression agency—crossing a line that should concern us all. After years of defending others, I am now the one in need of defense. ICE seeks to chill free expression and silence immigrant advocates by using its deportation powers to intimidate and deport me and those I support.

The decision to come out as undocumented in 2014 was not an easy choice for me to make. But the record deportations under the Obama administration led my U.S.-born daughter and me to the conclusion that being silent and closeted about my lack of lawful status was no longer an option for us.

On a rainy morning in February of 2014, I locked myself to other activists outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington—the largest immigrant detention center on the West Coast. We were part of the #not1more movement pushing President Obama to stop his record deportations through a series of actions shutting down ICE facilities. That day I came out as an undocumented activist; we risked arrest and succeeded in stopping deportations—if only for a day. And, our actions helped inspire those imprisoned inside the detention center to start a hunger strike, joining our protest with their own.

Two weeks after our shut-down action, over 1,200 people detained at the NWDC began refusing meals, launching the first in a series of hunger strikes that have since roiled the facility. In response, I helped found NWDC Resistance, a grassroots group that seeks to support and amplify the organizing efforts against ICE led by those detained in ICE facilities. The hunger strikes have not stopped—there were nine hunger strikes at the NWDC between April and November of last year alone.

I receive an average of 20 phone calls a day from people detained, and have helped coordinate the protests inside with the resistance work we are doing on the outside. This is my life’s calling—to work alongside those detained to expose the cruelty of detention and deportation and support liberation and real justice for all.

Our efforts have borne fruit: From the local to the national level, government officials have been forced to take notice. Two members of Washington State’s congressional delegation have introduced federal legislation to reform detention, echoing the demands of the hunger strikers in their proposals.

And last year, Washington State’s attorney general sued the GEO Group, the private prison corporation that owns and runs the NWDC alongside ICE. The press conference announcing the lawsuit specifically cited the hunger strikes as the inspiration for the Attorney General’s efforts to end the abusive practice of paying detained immigrants only $1 per day for their work inside the facility. The NWDC has gone 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.

Perhaps because of our effectiveness, ICE’s retaliation has been fierce; those immigrants who dare to challenge ICE while detained have faced solitary confinement, threats of forced feeding, forced transfers to other facilities far from their families and attorneys, and even deportation. And now the retaliation has struck home, with ICE targeting my family, menacing me with deportation, and expecting me to slow down my activism and my defense of those detained by threatening me with the same fate.

And yet if this last year has taught me anything, it is this: Continued resistance, in the face of growing repression, is our only choice. We are coming up on the one-year anniversary of the Trump regime taking power. It is one year since the Obama administration handed the keys to the enormous machinery of detention and deportation over to a group of people with openly xenophobic, white supremacist ambitions.

In that year, ICE has fully transitioned to becoming Trump’s police force. But “resistance” was part of our group’s name even before Trump took office. Last month, because of my active resistance, the U.S. government came for me. I will continue my struggle so that tomorrow they don’t come for you.

Maru Mora Villalpando is a statewide community organizer and trainer with more than ten years of experience, primarily focusing on immigrant, racial, and reproductive justice issues. She is a regular political analyst guest on local and national media outlets.

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