Immigration authorities under President Donald Trump’s administration have pursued a widespread campaign of official retaliation against immigrant rights advocates around the country, according to a newly released database and searchable map assembled by the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University Law School.
Though some of the more than 1,000 incidents of alleged retaliation catalogued in the NYU Law map have been previously reported on — many of them in The Intercept — and others have even been the subject of high-profile litigation, those instances have often been viewed in isolation. The NYU Law map, which was published under the banner of Immigrant Rights Voices in partnership with the immigration advocates of New Sanctuary Coalition, represents the most comprehensive effort to date to document all known instances of official retaliation against immigrant rights advocates. As such, it paints a picture of a practice so widespread as to seemingly constitute an official policy of using the powers of the state against critics of an unchecked immigration apparatus.
Among the cases highlighted in the NYU law map are those of Ravi Ragbir and Jean Montrevil, both leaders of New Sanctuary Coalition, who were targeted for deportation in early 2018. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement succeeded in speeding through Montrevil’s deportation to Haiti before his lawyer could stop them. Ragbir was surveilled, detained, and flown to a detention center in Florida in preparation for a swift deportation before a federal judge ordered his release.
Other relatively well-known cases around the country include that of Maru Mora Villalpando in the state of Washington; ICE officials discussed targeting her for deportation in internal emails, speculating that “placing her into proceedings might actually take away some of her ‘clout.’”
Undocumented activists with Migrant Justice in Vermont also made headlines when immigration officials surveilled them using an informant and targeted them for deportation, working with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.
Students at NYU’s Immigration Law Clinic had worked on both Montrevil’s and Ragbir’s cases, said Rachel Maremont, a third-year law student taking part in the clinic. Through that work, they had encountered scattered accounts of similar official intimidation and retaliation. Maremont said, “We already knew from being involved in Ragbir and Montrevil’s case that this was a scare tactic that individual field offices were using.”
Undertaking a more thorough survey of political targeting around the country revealed how widespread the problem is. “The map shows the broader story, how this pattern and practice cuts across different agencies, different geographic areas, different types of people and organizations,” Maremont said.
Sejal Zota, legal director for Just Futures Law — which represents Washington activists, including the group led by Mora Villalpando — said the NYU students’ map will be a powerful tool in the fight to put checks on the power of the deportation apparatus. “It’s so important that these stories are told — and told not just piecemeal, but as part of a larger narrative,” Zota said.
“It’s so important that these stories are told — and told not just piecemeal, but as part of a larger narrative.”
Zota raised the issue of federal officers working for the Department of Homeland Security — which oversees immigration enforcement, generally, and ICE, specifically — cracking down on Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon. The moves, as The Intercept reported, was in line with the agency’s history of going after border activists. “We’ve now seen the machinery of DHS go after non-immigrants, as part of the uprising,” Zota said. “But I don’t know that there’s a widespread awareness that this is part of a longer history of targeting immigrant activists.”
As alarming as it is to take in the breadth of the government’s targeting of political activists, Zota added, the very scale of the reaction speaks to the power of activists’ work. “It demonstrates how threatened they are by the power of movements, by the power of people organizing, and the lengths that they’ll go to — to silence folks,” she said.
In addition to arrests of activists, the map collects incidents in which immigration authorities and law enforcement partners targeted journalists, as in the case of reporters covering migrant caravans harassed by border officials, or the case of Manuel Duran, a Memphis journalist falsely arrested and charged by local police while covering a protest against police cooperation with ICE. The criminal charges were soon dropped — video evidence disproved them — but he was nonetheless transferred to ICE custody and held for over a year.
The map also tracks authorities’ surveillance of immigrant rights demonstrations, the punitive fines levied against people who seek sanctuary from deportation in churches, and the flurry of ICE raids targeting so-called sanctuary cities, where local governments limit their cooperation with federal deportation operations.
The map reveals the degree to which immigration enforcement officials have enlisted other branches of federal, state, and local government in their targeting of immigration activists, said Matthew Nussbaum, another NYU student who worked on the project. “DHS has taken over a lot of other agencies — like state DMVs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state and local police — and used them for its own ends,” he said. “They’re using all of these agencies to expand their authority and making it so that immigrants who live in the U.S. aren’t able to go to those agencies for whatever their actual purposes are.”
The law students built the map primarily as an educational tool, to show the public what’s happening around the country. But the project has also helped create a community of activists experiencing political repression, they said. “Some of those people, like Maru Mora Villalpando in Washington or the Migrant Justice activists in Vermont — they’re fortunate enough to have communities and organizations supporting them,” Maremont said. “But many of them don’t. They’re alone. And so, as this group has been talking, it’s been really wonderful to see this network of mutual support coming together out of it.”
Correction: November 1, 2020, 10:37 a.m.
This story has been updated to reflect that Rachel Maremont is a third-year law student at NYU Law, not a second-year student.