For years, activist Maru Mora-Villalpando has organized hunger strikes to protest conditions at an immigrant detention center in Washington state. By 2017, she'd gotten the attention of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
One high-ranking ICE officer described her as an "instigator" in an internal email. Another responded that Mora-Villalpando was a "well-known local illegal alien," and suggested that trying to deport her might "take away some of her 'clout.'"
A few weeks after those emails, ICE placed Mora-Villalpando, who was born in Mexico, in deportation proceedings.
For immigrant rights advocates, that email exchange is vindication of what they've been saying for years: that ICE deliberately retaliates against activists.
It's a charge ICE consistently denies. But advocates say there's a growing body of evidence that can't be ignored — and they're urging the Biden administration to do something about it.
Federal immigration officials are engaged in "a sustained campaign of ICE surveillance and repression against advocacy groups and activists," according to a new report prepared by The University of Washington School of Law Immigration Clinic, with input from immigrant rights activists across the country.
The report draws on interviews, court filings and documents obtained through Freedom Of Information Act requests. It documents a range of allegations from around the country — Texas, Washington state, Vermont, North Carolina and Illinois — where advocates say they've been intimidated, spied on, and even deported for their activism.
"Some of the stories of activist retaliation have previously been told piecemeal, allowing someone to make the case that this is really about a couple of rogue officers from a particular field office," says Sejal Zota, the legal director of Just Futures Law, one of the groups behind the new report. "Documenting the accounts of groups from around the country, I think it becomes clear that this is a broad and national problem."
ICE denies retaliating against anyone. The agency says it is simply enforcing immigration law against people who are living in the country illegally.
"ICE condemns retaliatory enforcement against individuals who exercise their First Amendment right to speech and assembly," an agency spokesman said in a statement. "Like all other law enforcement agencies, ICE monitors planned protests to ensure the safety and security of its infrastructure, personnel, officers and all those involved."
But sometimes, activists come to ICE's attention because of their work.
Mora-Villalpando, 50, did not try to hide her immigration status. She came to the U.S. from Mexico City and has lived here since the 1990s after overstaying a tourist visa. She has no criminal record. Mora-Villalpando openly discussed her immigration status in interviews, even as she co-founded a group called La Resistencia and began protesting conditions at ICE detention centers in 2014.
Immigration authorities did not place Mora-Villalpondo in deportation proceedings until years later — around the same time that two U.S. representatives from Washington state asked to bring her along as one of their guests on a tour of ICE's Northwest Detention Center, as it was known then, in Tacoma, Wash.
"As she self-proclaims to be an illegal alien, we should plainly say to the Congresspersons that she should not be allowed into the facility," wrote Marc Moore, the incoming head of ICE's Seattle field office, in an email in November of 2017.
At the time, the Trump administration had recently lifted Obama-era policies that limited who ICE agents could target for arrest or deportation. Under Trump's enforcement rules, ICE officers were free to detain anyone they encountered who was in the country illegally — including activists like Mora-Villalpando.
"In fact, we have been planning on placing her into proceedings," Moore wrote. "It will of course, make the news. But we cannot continue to ignore here [sic] status here under the new enforcement policies."
If ICE was trying to silence Mora-Villalpando, it didn't work. She fought the agency in court, eventually obtaining internal agency emails and other documents — including the email where Moore suggested that placing her in removal proceedings might diminish her "clout."
"I even had to look up that word. I didn't know that word in English," Mora-Villalpando said in an interview with NPR. Still, she says, "It was very clear that ICE didn't like my work."
Advocates say Mora-Villalpando's case and others documented in the new report are textbook examples of retaliation, and they want the Biden administration to address it.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was asked about alleged retaliation during an interview in April at a virtual conference organized by the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Immigration Law and Policy.
"That is unacceptable," Mayorkas said. "Retaliation in response to the constitutionally protected right of free speech — and quite frankly, the civic obligation to protest government positions with which one disagrees — that's just unacceptable."
When asked whether he would consider reviewing cases of alleged retaliation, Mayorkas said he'd want to look more deeply into specific allegations first.
"I do owe it to my colleagues in the department to give them due process with respect to the basis of the removal. And I have not delved into the evidence and I do believe in doing so," he said.
Immigrant advocates were glad to hear Mayorkas condemn retaliation. But they want the administration to go a step further. They're calling on Mayorkas to take a formal stand against retaliation in the official ICE enforcement guidelines he's expected to issue in the next few months.
Specifically, activists want immigration officials to exercise "prosecutorial discretion" in the cases of organizers and activists, and to bring home immigrants who were deported or targeted for deportation because of their work.
Otherwise, activists say, they're concerned that retaliation and surveillance of activists will continue.
Activist Claudia Muñoz says ICE banned her and a colleague from visiting immigrants at a detention center in Texas.
"They had printed our licenses and put them on the wall of the detention center, and said, 'These folks are not allowed inside,' " Muñoz tells NPR.
ICE never told Muñoz why she was banned from the facility, she says. But she suspected it was in retaliation for her work as the co-director of Grassroots Leadership, an immigrants' rights group in Austin, Texas. The group had recently helped expose the story of a woman who said she was sexually abused by a guard at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas.
Muñoz's lawyers filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out more. That's how she learned that ICE had been gathering information about her — including her immigration records, as well as surveillance videos and photos from her personal social media accounts. That was particularly terrifying for Muñoz because she was undocumented at the time, as were members of her family who also appeared in the photos.
"It was really disturbing what they were doing," Muñoz says. "I was scared for my family."
Ultimately, ICE did not take any further action against Muñoz or her family. An immigration judge granted her permanent residency in March.
Mora-Villalpando is still fighting her deportation case. Since the agency placed her in removal proceedings, activists in Washington succeeded in pushing the state to prohibit for-profit detention centers. They hope to shut down the ICE detention facility in Tacoma by 2025.
In her case, Mora-Villalpando believes ICE's aggressive tactics backfired.
"They gave us a larger microphone, you know, a larger bullhorn to say this is wrong and this is why we're going to continue fighting," she says. "I've always believed that when we get attacked, it's because they're afraid of us."