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Trump Administration Transforms ICE Into Tool For Political Repression

Immigration and Customs Enforcement appears to be escalating its targeting of immigrant rights activists for deportation.

Since President Donald Trump was inaugurated, there have been at least ten prominent cases where immigrants involved in community activism were deported or faced an increased threat of deportation.

Ravi Ragbir, who is the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, checked in with ICE on January 11. He was detained and transferred to a jail in Miami. It immediately sparked a protest that was attacked by New York police, who arrested several people including city council members. Ragbir is from Trinidad and Tobago and has been in the United States for 25 years.

As Adam Klasfeld of Courthouse News reported, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan Waterman declared during a hearing on January 16 that Ragbir was “detained to effect removal. What we don’t know is why they did it now.”

Ragbir’s defense won a victory on January 17. ICE plans to transfer Ragbir back to New York, though he will remain in detention.

New York City immigration rights activist Jean Montrevil, also involved in running the New Sanctuary Coalition, was deported to Haiti on January 16. He lived in the U.S. for more than three decades. Although he served an 11-year prison sentence for cocaine possession, he had no problems with the criminal justice system for several years and was raising four children.

Montrevil described on “Democracy Now!” how he received no prior notification from his lawyer. “My case was still in court. It seemed like it was something well organized between the ICE and the [Board of Immigration Appeals]. And they deported me to Haiti.

“It was very hard travel. I don’t know how to tell you, that it was very hard. Imagine staying up for two days straight, with no food and shackled up and with no explanation,” Montrevil added.

When Montrevil went for his first check-in under Trump in June, he was handcuffed and processed for deportation. Protests helped discourage ICE from going through with his removal.

Both Ragbir and Montrevil were at the forefront of efforts in New York to challenge the deportation machine that the Trump administration inherited and has kicked into overdrive.

Maru Mora-Villalpando received a notice from ICE to appear before an immigration judge. She is from Mexico City and leads an organization known as Northwestern Detention Center Resistance. It was launched in 2014 to protest a private immigrant detention facility in Tacoma, Washington. At the time, hunger strikes were launched by detainees to protest abusive conditions.

She has engaged in civil disobedience, which means she likely has an arrest record. She believes ICE is targeting her for her activism. Her “notice to appear” indicated deportation proceedings were initiated.

“We have a deportation machine that has grown incredibly big,” Mora-Villalpando told “Democracy Now!”.  “And when [President Barack Obama] was leaving, he had the opportunity to stop it, but instead gave the keys to this fascist regime, that has utilized it in so many different ways.

“For us, it’s clear that although their actions against immigrants, starting with their campaign, actually hitting Mexicans has grown. But we still fight. We still resist. And we have been winning. So we believe that ICE is really sending us a message to stop our political activity, to stop our activism. When I saw that letter, I immediately knew what it was. And I laughed to myself, because I felt, ‘They are sending me a message. They want me to stop. And I won’t stop,'” she added.

There are several other cases that garnered attention in 2017 that show ICE is developing into a major tool for political oppression.

Siham Biyah, a 40 year-old mother and activist in Boston, was deported to Morocco a day after Christmas. She had a check-in at ICE headquarters on November 7 and was detained. The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families took her 8 year-old son Naseem and refused to let Biyah’s family decide who would take care of Naseem.

According to Socialist Worker, Biyah had a legal appeal that she launched in December. She hoped it would help her remain in the U.S. with family. ICE even sent a letter suggesting she would not be deported until the case was completed. However, she was removed from her cell on December 26, transferred to Virginia and placed on a plane to Casablanca the next day. Each time she was moved, authorities would not allow her to use the phone so she could rally supporters to make phone calls against her deportation.

The Denver Post reported in October that Colorado had more immigrants living in sanctuary in churches than any other state. One of those individuals who sought sanctuary is Sandra Lopez, a 42 year-old mother who fled violence in Chihuahua, Mexico, about 20 years ago.

Lopez took refuge in the church in November after she was informed ICE would likely deport her if she went to her annual check-in on October 19. She was arrested in 2010 on “misdemeanor criminal mischief and domestic violence” charges but that was “after one of her children mistakenly dialed 911.” Officers reported her to ICE when she could not show a Colorado ID.

“It’s important that we call this what it is. I’m an undocumented mother, and that does not make us criminals. I’m just a mother, and I’m fighting for my family to be together. I had the option to flee and go into hiding, but instead I’m here. I have dreams. My family has dreams,” Lopez stated.

Jessica Colotl had her protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) revoked by the Trump administration. Last year, a federal judge issued an order—twice—to preserve her immigration status and allow Colotl to keep her employment authorization.

Right-wing media see Colotl as the “poster child for illegal immigrant DREAMers,” referring to a legislative proposal meant to allow undocumented children to remain in the United States. She was arrested in 2010 after police pulled her over and found she did not have a driver’s license. She was detained and faced deportation, but her case became a flashpoint for the struggle for undocumented youth and ultimately she was allowed to remain in the country to complete a degree at Kennesaw State University.

“With DACA, I could work, drive, plan for my future, and live a full life in the only country that feels like home for me,” Colotl said. “But now, that’s at risk. President Trump said he wouldn’t go after DREAMers, but from my experience it feels like a total change of policy from the Obama administration, like Trump’s administration came after me.”

A California State University student named Claudia Rueda, who is an immigrant rights activist, was arrested on immigration charges on May 18. She was outside of a relative’s home in Los Angeles. The U.S. Border Patrol claimed her arrest was part of a “drug smuggling investigation.”

Rueda had no criminal record but was arrested twice during protests for immigrant rights. Fortunately, immigration judge Annie S. Garcy found her detention without bond to be “unduly severe.” In June, she was ordered released and the judge even was “incredulous when a government attorney asked that Rueda be required to wear a monitoring device.”

A retail janitor and organizer for low-wage workers in Local 26, Luciano Mejia Morales was arrested in Minnesota last summer when he was stopped by police and officers discovered he had no driver’s license. Family and colleagues raised funds for his bail. But a few hours after, ICE arrested him and initiated his deportation. The community was unable to stop his deportation back to Guatemala.

In May, Carimer Andujar, an undocumented Rutgers University student, was summoned by ICE to go to their office in Newark, New Jersey. She feared they would deport her to the Dominican Republic but left the meeting without ICE detaining her.

Both Enrique Balcazar, a 24 year-old human rights activist from Mexico, and Zully Palacios, a 23 year-old activist from Peru, were arrested in March after ICE agents surrounded their human rights organization, Migrant Justice, in Burlington, Vermont. They were detained and face deportation proceedings in March.

Another Migrant Justice advocate, Cesar Alex Carillo, who was 23 years-old, agreed to “voluntary departure” back to Mexico in May after he was arrested the same week as Balcazar and Palacios. He had a prior driving under the influence (DUI) charge, which led a Boston immigration judge to order Carillo be held in detention without bail. (“Voluntary departure” was accepted so Carillo was not formally deported and could attempt to return to the U.S. in the future.)

Migrant Justice strongly believes immigration authorities targeted their organization for their political activism. They filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in October.

“The timing and place of these arrests, comments made by immigration officers during the arrests, and other actions by immigration enforcement agencies have led the organization to suspect ongoing interference with its activities and that the arrests are retaliatory and have improperly targeted Migrant Justice and its members,” ACLU of Vermont attorney Lia Ernst declared.

Twenty-two year-old Daniela Vargas, an undocumented activist who immigrated to the U.S. from Argentina, was in Jackson, Mississippi, in March for a news conference. It was organized by “lawyers, church leaders, and the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance to raise awareness about the impact deportation and President Trump’s immigration policies have on families.” After leaving, officers pulled over the car she was riding in, handcuffed her, and transferred her to a detention center in Louisiana.

Her attorney suggested immigration authorities followed Vargas from the news conference. She was ultimately released a week later.

As detailed by journalist Julianne Hing, “Three weeks before, Vargas had been asleep in her family’s home when ICE agents arrested her father and brother as they were headed out to work. Vargas had been a recipient of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which gave her a two-year protection from deportation, but her status had lapsed because the $495 renewal application fee was prohibitively expensive for her.”

“Fearing for her own safety, Vargas refused to let ICE enter the family home and barricaded herself in a closet, where she and ICE agents began a five-hour standoff. ICE eventually broke into her home, but backed off when she convinced them that she was a DACA recipient, though not before promising her that they’d be back for her,” Hing added.

Jeanette Vizguerra, a mother and immigrant rights activist, sought refuge at the First Unitarian Church in Denver after her stay of removal expired. She was supposed to meet with ICE but instead sought sanctuary to avoid deportation to Mexico. She was granted relief in May, weeks after Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people.

Three Colorado Democrats—Michael Bennet, Jared Polis, and Ed Perlmutter—fought for a stay of removal to be granted. They introduced legislation. ICE responded affirmatively to the bill, however, as the Los Angeles Times reported, the agency changed its policy of reversing deportation proceedings if a member of Congress introduces a bill. Now, “ICE will consider and issue a stay of removal for up to six months only if the chairman of the House or Senate judiciary committee, or appropriate subcommittee, makes a written request to ICE.”

One of the first cases under Trump involved Wendy Uruchi Contreras, a Virginia organizer with the immigrant rights organization known as CASA.

Contreras’ struggle in the courts was already ongoing when Trump became president. She was arrested for driving under the influence, and Obama guidelines considered immigrants with DUIs a priority for deportation.

She was deported to Spain in January. Her attorney said authorities  “focused on one thing, that she got that DUI, and it was like they forgot about everything on the other side of the scale.”

During the first weeks of President Trump’s administration, arrests of immigrants without criminal records “more than doubled to 5,441.” His administration emboldened ICE, and with that, agents are operating with fewer restraints on their authority. That opens up immigration rights activists to any efforts by ICE to remove the very people who are successfully campaigning against their abuses of power.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."