She was once up for deportation. Now she fights to end all immigration detention

Maru Mora-Villalpando says her crusade to end immigration detention isn’t just about human rights — it’s about democracy itself.

“The reality of this fight is that undocumented people don’t vote. And when they don’t vote, they’re not seen as an important base for politicians. On the contrary, because they’re very vulnerable, then they will be used — and they have been used — as a political pawn,” Mora-Villalpando told The Hill in recent interview.

Mora-Villalpando, a political consultant in the Seattle area and a community organizer with La Resistencia, a grassroots group led by undocumented immigrants, was undocumented herself for 25 years.

She was publicly taciturn about her immigration status until 2014, when she led a protest to block the entrance to the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility operated by the GEO Group, a multinational private prison operator.

“Really, the story of that action was not that an undocumented person was leading the action. It was just the action in itself,” Mora-Villalpando said.

“I wanted to say, ‘Look, I’m undocumented,’ so I could mobilize the rest of my community. That was my purpose — was two things: to put that detention center on the map, and second to call all undocumented people to do something because, you know, I thought, ‘We’re sick and tired of this. They’re coming after us, we have to do something.’”

Undocumented people, whether on an expired visa or having entered the United States without prior authorization, are often told to keep their heads down and attract as little attention as possible.

Mora-Villalpando followed that advice in 1996, when her tourist visa expired and Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA), which tightened border controls and made it harder for foreign nationals to get visas.

Like many other Mexicans in the United States at the time, Mora-Villalpando weighed her choices after the IIRAIRA and decided to stay put and avoid crossing the border for fear of not being allowed to return.

“When I lost my status after my visa expired, the undocumented community, you know, they give you quote-unquote ‘advice.’ And it’s not the best advice,” she said.

“They do it because they believe it’s to protect each other, right? Don’t do this. Don’t go out. Don’t say you’re undocumented. Don’t — you know, act like you are a citizen. Don’t speak Spanish. Don’t have an accent. Don’t dress like you come from your pueblo.”

But Mora-Villalpando — college-educated, bilingual and politically active — didn’t fully fit the public expectations of an undocumented immigrant. At the 2014 protest outside the NWDC, she recalls a reporter asked her, “Who is the undocumented person?”

“I was like, ‘I am the undocumented person,’ and she was like, still, like, didn’t understand what I was saying.”

But ICE officials did.

In December 2017, under the Trump administration’s expanded priorities for removal, Mora-Villalpando was served a notice to appear by ICE, the first step in deportation proceedings.

“I was surprised because ICE knew of me since 2014. And so, why did they wait all the way to December 2017 to send me a notice to appear?” she asked.

“Also, the notice to appear didn’t have a date, or a place for my hearing, which it should’ve. As a matter of fact, I think they’re still litigating that in the courts. Yeah, how valid are these orders if they don’t have a place and a location for a hearing, right?”

Mora-Villalpando’s work was also being noticed by immigration advocates and their allies in Congress.

In January 2018, she and her daughter attended then-President Trump’s State of the Union address as guests of Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).

“And so I called my team and I was like, they’re inviting me to this dinner and to watch the State of the Union. I honestly don’t want to go. Who wants to sit there for an hour and a half and, you know, listen to that guy speak?” said Mora-Villalpando.

“I don’t. And so my team and other members of the leadership that I was forming, they’re like, ‘No, you have to go. You have to go. This is an opportunity. And even if you don’t like it, you have to do it.'”

Though Mora-Villalpando was outwardly ready to fight her deportation, the timing of the notice hit home, because her U.S.-born daughter was at the time 20 years old, only a few months away from turning 21 and being able to petition the feds for Mora-Villalpando’s permanent residency.

“I was really angry. Really, really, really angry, because of the impact on my daughter — because she was with me when I received the letter,” said Mora-Villalpando, who in 2021 received her residency papers following her daughter’s petition.

“But I was ready in the sense that, you know, we have been organizing. By then I was ready to fight a deportation, because I knew it was looming, you know; at any point it could happen. But I decided to take it as a political fight, you know, to make a point for our fight.”

ICE officials took that fight personally. In a series of emails obtained by Mora-Villalpando through freedom of information requests and reviewed by The Hill, officials fumed as she dug into her political activism.

In a November 2018 email, Nathalie Asher, former ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations field office director for the Pacific Northwest, responded to a message about a panel discussion featuring Mora-Villalpando at the University of Washington focused on human rights violations at the NWDC.

“The campus is 10 mins from my daughter’s house. … all I can do to not go and take these punks on,” Asher wrote.

In January 2018, after Mora-Villalpando went public with her notice to appear, local ICE officials exchanged commentary and mused about her immigration status and political activism.

“Surprised it took her so long,” then-ICE Deputy Field Office Director Bryan Wilcox wrote in one message.

In the emails, Wilcox singled out Mora-Villalpando for her role in hunger strikes at the NWDC, as one of the “instigators of all the turmoil surrounding the NWDC for the past several years.”

The facility has long faced allegations of human rights violations and subpar upkeep, and advocates say hunger strikes are often the only way for detainees to assert their rights.

Mora-Villalpando said the hunger strikes happen organically and that her organization’s role is simply to instruct detainees on how to engage in passive resistance as safely as possible.

For her, the day-to-day protests are a means to an end, generating political power among the undocumented with the aim of ending immigration detention altogether.

“I figure well, even if we get immigration status, even if we get to vote, as long as there’s this tiering of the system of ‘some deserve, some don’t,’ you have to go through step by step and ‘earn,’ quote-unquote, becoming a citizen,” Mora-Villalpando said.

“As long as that happens, and there’s an immigration detention system, earning the citizenship is not going to mean anything to us. We need to undo this tiering of the system and this excuse to detain people.”

And Mora-Villalpando says she will continue her activism until that structure is fundamentally changed.

“The immigration detention system in the U.S. has flourished because it became a business. So I think when we stop the business of immigration detention, then I can retire,” she said.

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