Claiming federal immigration officials are targeting people who speak out against government policies, three activist groups are suing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on First Amendment grounds in Seattle’s federal court.
Among the more than 10 nationwide cases cited in the complaint are two involving Washingtonians: Maru Mora-Villalpando, a well-known Bellingham activist who calls for the end of all detentions and deportations and is currently in deportation proceedings herself; and Baltazar “Rosas” Aburto Gutierrez, a Pacific County seafood worker arrested after speaking to The Seattle Times and the Chinook Observer about the arrest of his longtime girlfriend.
The lawsuit says the selective arrest, detention and deportation of immigrants began when President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. “This sharp spike in immigration-enforcement targeting the most vocal immigration activists is intended to stifle dissent,” reads the 25-page complaint.
It was filed Tuesday on behalf of two local groups — the Northwest Detention Center Resistance (NWDC Resistance), led in part by Mora-Villalpando, and the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites — as well as the Washington, D.C.-based Detention Watch Network.
“ICE takes the health, safety and welfare of those in its care very seriously and respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference,” said agency spokeswoman Tanya Roman, adding that she could not comment on pending litigation.
The agency is also facing another First Amendment lawsuit in New York, filed in February on behalf of Ravi Ragbir, a nationally known activist and director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, who was detained in January.
Elizabeth Simpson, with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, supporting the plaintiffs’ attorneys at Davis Wright Tremaine in the new lawsuit, says this one looks more broadly at the effect of ICE’s policies on the immigrant activist community.
The cases it discusses come from all over the U.S., including Mississippi, Vermont, Texas and Colorado, as well as Washington and New York. Among the plaintiffs are Daniela Vargas, a young woman and onetime DACA recipient, whose status had lapsed, and was arrested as she was leaving a news conference about immigration policies. Another is teenage filmmaker, Sergio Salazar, who was arrested at an encampment he helped stage outside an ICE facility in San Antonio. His onetime DACA status had not been renewed.
And there’s Eliseo Jurado, the husband of woman who sought sanctuary at Boulder, Colorado churches to avoid deportation, attracting news coverage and bringing Jurado to ICE’s attention, according to an ICE official interviewed by The Denver Post. Jurado came to the U.S. illegally and had several misdemeanor convictions on his record, the official said.
Mora-Villalpando also came to the agency’s attention because of media attention, according to an ICE arrest form. It referred to a profile in the publication Whatcom Watch in which the activist openly declared her undocumented status, saying the visa she used to come to the U.S. had expired long ago.
“It should also be noted that she has extensive involvement with anti-ICE protests and Latino advocacy programs,” the arrest form said.
Much of her activism centers on the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. She has supported multiple hunger strikes at the facility, frequently sending out news releases and serving as a point of contact for reporters.
Though she has not been detained, her ongoing deportation proceedings have impeded the work of NWDC Resistance, according to the lawsuit. Much of its work has shifted to defending her and some members who have stopped participating out of fear that they will be targeted next. Likewise, the lawsuit says, Detention Watch Network has been spending energy on tracking activists who have been arrested or detained, and helping its members think about increasing risks that come with activism.
Aburto Gutierrez, in contrast, has not been part of any protest movement, and he has not exactly criticized immigration policies.
Last year, he agreed to be interviewed about the arrest of his longtime girlfriend by ICE agents posing as buyers of homemade piñatas. Mainly, he spoke of how much he missed his girlfriend, with whom he had two daughters. Having come to the U.S. illegally from Mexico more than 15 years ago, he was arrested and detained shortly after the story with his interview came out in The Seattle Times last November, and was later released on bond.
Gov. Jay Inslee called then-acting cirector of ICE Thomas Homan to complain about what the governor called a “chilling effect” on free speech. Homan said retaliation was not the reason for Aburto Gutierrez’s arrest. Instead, the ICE official said, agents realized that Aburto Gutierrez’s daughters, placed in his care when his girlfriend was arrested, had gone to Mexico to be with their mother.
The lawsuit apparently doesn’t accept that explanation. It asks for a permanent injunction restraining ICE from targeting individuals based on political speech.
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