Free Speech

Immigration Activists Targeted for Deportation and Harassment

Even supporters of the law should recognize the dangers of using enforcement as punishment.


The more power government has, the more weapons that are available for officials to wield against people who rub them the wrong way. That's true when it involves the (thankfully former) governor of New York abusing regulatory powers to cut gun-rights groups off from banks and insurance, and it's also true when immigration officers selectively target activists for arrest and mistreatment in order to silence them and intimidate their allies.

"For years, activist Maru Mora-Villalpando has organized hunger strikes to protest conditions at an immigrant detention center in Washington state," NPR noted in a recent story. "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.'"

Targeting immigration enforcement efforts directly against people who protest and organize for changes in immigration law is an overtly politicized use of government power. Even those who like the law just the way it is, or who favor changes directly opposed to those advocated by Mora-Villalpando, should recognize the dangers of using enforcement as punishment. That's especially true since her case is far from isolated.

"Federal immigration officers have long engaged in a pattern of surveillance of—and outright retaliation against—individuals advocating for immigrants across the country," according to a recent report from the University of Washington School of Law Immigration Clinic. "Court filings, internal government records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and related litigation, and interviews with five immigrants' rights organizations across the country—Organized Communities Against Deportation (OCAD) in Chicago, IL; La Resistencia in Washington State; Grassroots Leadership in Austin, TX; Comunidad Colectiva in Charlotte, NC; and Migrant Justice in Vermont—reveal a sustained campaign of ICE surveillance and repression against advocacy groups and activists."

The report goes on to detail the measures authorities take to identify and penalize activists, including placing them under close observation, harassing them, circulating their photographs, and barring them from facilities. Informants are called upon to identify people associated with activist groups. And, of course, activists are targeted for arrest and deportation.

Targeting can take a more brutal turn, too, according to the report. After a woman identified only as Laura alleged that she'd been sexually assaulted at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Texas, "Hutto guards assaulted, threatened, and isolated Laura, denied her medical attention, and attempted to force her to recant her accusations."

Laura's treatment involves clear acts of criminality by the authorities, but most cases revolve around selective enforcement. One such case resulted in the deportation to Argentina of Claudio Rojas, who lived, worked, and raised a family in the United States for years while going through the process to legalize his status. Then, he publicly criticized immigration policy.

"Everything changed suddenly when I was featured in a documentary film," Rojas wrote earlier this year for the Daily Beast. "The Infiltrators premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2019. Weeks after the film (and my name) was in the national news, I was suddenly deported. I had been in the United States for almost 20 years. To justify the sudden deportation, ICE falsely accused me of 'crimes.' It was clear that the true motivation was to punish me for speaking out."

Questioned in April about such cases of retaliation, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas grandly answered that "retaliation in response to the constitutionally protected right of free speech and, quite frankly, the obligation, the civic obligation, to protest government positions with which one disagrees, that's just unacceptable."

When specifically asked whether Rojas and those like him might be returned to the U.S., Mayorkas vaguely offered to check with DHS's Family Reunification Taskforce, created earlier this year, "about the community of people who might have claims of retaliation and to see if we can look into those as part of our overarching effort."

Being charitable, that's probably about as much as can be expected from an official unfamiliar with specific cases who doesn't want to commit to a course of action on abuses inherited from previous administrations. But it's cold comfort to even relatively prominent figures like Rojas whose case was brought before the head of DHS, and like Maru Mora-Villalpando, who has support from the United Nations, and still live in limbo. The many lesser-known activists targeted because they angered immigration officials by criticizing government conduct have even less hope for respect for their rights by government agents accustomed to punishing people for standing out.

Selective enforcement against people not for being in violation of the law, but for ticking-off government officials by advocating for changes in the law, should frighten even those who pride themselves as hardliners on immigration. After all, the United States isn't short on hot-button policy disagreements that divide supporters of enforcement from advocates of reform. From guns to drugs to sexual expression to free speech itself, Americans are at odds with government and each other on a host of issues. If speaking out against the law is enough to paint targets on our backs, then many people are at risk well beyond the world of immigration reform activists.

"Where federal agencies targeted an individual because they were engaging in protected speech critical of the government, they should restore them to their prior status," the University of Washington immigration clinic report urges the Biden administration with regard to immigration activists. That's excellent advice on any issue—criticizing official policy of any sort shouldn't be grounds for surveillance, arrest, and abuse.

But admonitions that government shouldn't target critics for special attention is also a reminder that law is always dangerous in ways that extend well beyond its intended application. Any opportunity for wielding coercive power will ultimately be used as a weapon by government agents against people they don't like.