SEATTLE (AP) — United Nations human rights experts Wednesday called on the U.S. to protect immigrant rights activists from deportation, saying they're concerned about a pattern of intimidation and retaliation.
The Geneva-based U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement that deportation proceedings against Seattle-area activist Maru Mora-Villalpando appeared to be in retaliation for her political work.
"Giving people notice of deportation proceedings appears to be a part of an increasing pattern of intimidation and retaliation against people defending migrants' rights in the US," the statement said. They said people working too protect migrants' rights must not be silenced.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have repeatedly denied any retaliation.
Mora-Villalpando, a Mexico native and longtime activist for immigrants held at the privately run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, has been in the U.S. continuously since 1996. She says she received notice in December to appear in immigration court, even though she has never had any interaction with law enforcement that might trigger deportation proceedings.
The agency "does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make," Matthew Albence, the executive associate director of ICE enforcement and removal operations, said in an emailed statement Wednesday.
He said any suggestion of targeting "is irresponsible, speculative and inaccurate," adding ICE focuses its enforcement resources on those who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.
But, Albence added, "ICE will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement." Anyone in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and removal from the United States, he said.
Pro-immigration activists have also pointed to cases like that of Eliseo Jurado, the husband of an immigrant activist in Boulder, Colorado, who sought sanctuary from deportation in a church.
Ravi Ragbir, a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago who leads the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, is also facing deportation after being arrested Jan. 11 during a routine check-in with immigration officials. Ragbir has a criminal record for wire fraud because of work he did for a crooked mortgage company.
U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest ordered Ragbir released from custody late last month, finding his sudden detention was "unnecessarily cruel" because he wasn't given time to say goodbye to his family. The judge also expressed "grave concern" that he had been targeted because of his activism.
"We're extremely happy to see the UN making a statement in our favor, not only for my case but also the other human rights defenders who are being targeted," Mora-Villalpando said Wednesday.
Mora-Villalpando leads an organization called Northwest Detention Center Resistance, which was created in 2014 when detainees at the privately run immigration detention facility in Tacoma began a series of hunger strikes to protest their treatment.
Alejandra Gonza, director of the University of Washington's International Human Rights Clinic, said her students helped bring Mora-Villalpando's case to the attention of the U.N. experts.
"We're hoping this is going to pressure the U.S. government not to deport her," Gonza said. "We're hoping this is going to strengthen and empower Maru."
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