The logic may seem backward, but it worked. For years, being publicly out and outspoken as an undocumented person could serve as a kind of shield.
The undocumented-youth movement built its political power in part by turning the act of declaring one’s immigration status publicly into a form of resistance as well as a personal defense. During the Obama years, an undocumented person nabbed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement could rally their community around them, involve lawmakers in their campaigns, and shame the federal government into approving their release. Under President Barack Obama, this kind of righteous truth-telling was a powerful tool.
Under President Donald Trump, ICE now appears determined to put those years behind it. Increasingly, ICE seems intent on proving that there is no safety for undocumented immigrants anywhere—not in the shadows and not in the spotlight.
This week, longtime New York immigrant-rights activist Jean Montrevil, who had lived in the US for 31 years and was arrested just a week prior, was deported to Haiti. On Thursday, Ravi Ragbir, a leader alongside Montrevil with New York City’s New Sanctuary Movement, was transferred back to the New York area from Miami after ICE took him into custody during a check-in on January 11. Ragbir, like Montrevil, has been fighting a deportation order pegged to old criminal convictions, and has been an outspoken leader in New York City for immigrants in similar situations.
Also on January 11, ICE pulled over and arrested Eliseo Jurado, the husband of Ingrid Encalada Latorre, a Peruvian woman who has taken sanctuary in a church in Boulder, Colorado. This string of recent arrests prompted another immigrant-rights leader to come forward. On Tuesday, the longtime Seattle-based immigrant-rights activist Maru Mora Villalpando went public with details of ICE’s enforcement against her. On December 20 she received in the mail what’s known as a notice to appear. This document, sent by the Department of Homeland Security, signals the beginning of deportation proceedings that the federal government intends to pursue against Mora Villalpando.
“This is the first time I’ve ever heard from immigration,” Mora Villalpando told The Nation. The timing, for the 47-year-old activist, is no coincidence. Both Ragbir and Montrevil had old convictions in their records that they’d been fighting for years. “What happened with Ravi and Jean and the others, I think ICE could excuse the fact that they were already in deportation proceedings, and they knew of them because of some legal interaction with ICE.”
“My case makes it clear that this is a targeting of people who have decided to be outspoken,” said Mora Villalpando, who has never received a deportation order and says her criminal record is clean. “I only have traffic tickets in my life, and that’s that.”
ICE denies that these enforcement actions are politically motivated. “ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety, and border security,” ICE spokesperson Lori Haley said. “However, as ICE leadership has made clear, ICE will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
Rachael Yong Yow, a spokesperson for the New York offices of ICE, sent a similarly worded response when asked about Ragbir and Montrevil’s detainment.
The executive orders that Trump signed in his first days in office demonstrate that even people like Mora Villalpando, undocumented immigrants with squeaky-clean criminal records, will now become targets for enforcement. Indeed, the majority of people swept up in enforcement sweeps targeted at gang members in late 2017 had no criminal record at all. In that way, Mora Villalpando is not unique. Everyone is now on notice.
Jurado, the husband of Latorre, was pulling out of his driveway at home in Denver last Thursday when he spotted two unmarked trucks following him out of his neighborhood, said Jennifer Piper, the Denver-based interfaith organizing director with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social-justice organization. The trucks flagged him down and Jurado pulled into a Safeway parking lot, where six ICE agents jumped out of the cars and arrested him. He’s currently being held in a for-profit detention center in Aurora, Colorado.
Latorre, who has spent more than a year in sanctuary in various churches around Colorado, has become an outspoken figure in the Colorado immigrant community. She’s currently in sanctuary at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Boulder with the couple’s two children. “Eliseo wrote letters in support for Ingrid, he was at all of her hearings, and a lot of her documents about her financial situation include him,” Piper said. For Latorre and the family’s supporters, Jurado’s arrest feels retaliatory.
ICE denies that Jurado’s arrest was politically motivated. But, an ICE field office director, Jeffrey Lynch, acknowledged, “ICE targeted Eliseo Jurado-Fernandez for arrest after he came to ICE’s attention during an investigation into his spouse, Ingrid Encalada Latorre.”
For Latorre and her family, this distinction that ICE wants to make is meaningless.
“It really bothers me that immigration chose to attack Eliseo to get to me,” Latorre told The Nation. “There was no reason for them to go after him other than to get to me. Eliseo had never had any contact with immigration in the time we’ve been together.” Jurado, ICE explicitly pointed out and Latorre confirmed, had been convicted of driving under the influence over a decade ago.
Latorre is firm in her belief that her husband’s arrest is an ICE “harassment tactic,” and that every enforcement decision is deeply political.
While Trump and his administration are fond of rhetoric that paints immigrants with a broad brush, conflating foreignness with criminality, Trump himself has taken time to single out immigrants with criminal records who supposedly represent the most serious threat to US national security. Gang members, those wanted for homicide, or people facing serious criminal charges, are the people Trump supposedly most wants to remove from the country.
The reality is that it’s people like Ragbir, Montrevil, Latorre, Jurado, and Mora Villalpando, activists though they are, who have become the true targets. While they may now be new targets of the administration, they are among many who’ve been swept up by the administration’s stepped-up raids, sweeps, and enforcement actions in recent weeks. ICE is planning on arresting 1,500 people in upcoming raids in Northern California, the San Francisco Chronicle reported this week. ICE acting director Thomas Homan said in December that he wants to see a quadruple increase of workplace raids (like the recent raids on 7-Eleven stores nationwide, which netted 21 people for the agency’s arrest numbers.)
That doesn’t mean that ICE isn’t also using high-profile arrests to send messages to the immigrant community.
Mora Villalpando said she first had a sense of changes to come last spring, when ICE tracked down and arrested Daniela Vargas, a young undocumented immigrant from Mississippi, immediately after she finished speaking at a press conference after her family home was raided. At the press conference Vargas recalled waking up in her family’s home when ICE knocked on the door and arrested her father and brothers as they were on their way to work.
Vargas, whose DACA status had recently expired, feared for her own safety, and barricaded herself inside a closet while making frantic phone calls to her network of allies and community leaders. ICE surrounded her house for hours, and even gained entry to the home, but by then members from the local immigrant-rights community had shown up outside too. Eventually ICE agents relented, but not before threatening Vargas and telling her they’d come back for her.
A week later, ICE agents found her again, and arrested her. She was eventually released from ICE custody after days of public outcry, but for immigrant leaders, a message had been sent. “That was a sign of things to come,” Mora Villalpando said.
Mora Villalpando notes that the union representing ICE officers endorsed Trump as a candidate. “Now he’s president and now that ICE has been given free rein they’re using it,” she said. “It’s not about priority for enforcement this, priority for enforcement that. They’re using their power to silence our movement.”
Coming out as undocumented to seek safety in publicity may not offer the kind of protection it once did, Amy Gottlieb said. Gottlieb, who is married to Ragbir and is an immigration attorney herself, was with Ragbir when he was detained last week.
“I didn’t think that before, but with what we’ve seen in the last week, it’s a mixed bag,” Gottlieb said. She said she thinks that ICE’s recent actions may change people’s personal calculus about coming out, even as it’s already forced the immigrant-rights movement to consider new political strategies.
Still, a fight waged in public may remain the safer bet. Ragbir and this collection of other activist colleagues may now be new targets of the administration, but they do have something most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country do not. Unlike unconnected everyday undocumented immigrants, Vargas, Ragbir, Montrevil, Jurado, and Mora Villalpando were able to immediately mobilize their networks of allies, which include organizers, attorneys, faith leaders, and lawmakers, to fight on their behalf. Within minutes of Ragbir’s arrest on Thursday, a protest formed on the steps of the ICE office where he was taken. Eighteen people were arrested, including multiple New York City Council members.
This moment is changing, though, and the old political script seems to have less power. Organizers are already grappling with what the new political strategy ought to look like.
At this moment, Gottlieb is focused on fighting for her family. “I can’t put myself inside the mind of an ICE officer and find what their motivation is for doing something. I can say their ultimate impact is pure devastation.”
“I’m in an empty apartment right now,” Gottlieb said on Wednesday night. “And I don’t know when Ravi is coming home.”