In a sign of changing immigration policies under President Joe Biden, the government has dropped a deportation case against prominent activist Maru Mora Villalpando and granted her lawful permanent residency.
Mora Villalpando and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) signed a joint motion making that request, according to her attorney Devin Theriot-Orr. An immigration judge approved the motion last week, noting the activist has a 24-year-old daughter who is an American citizen, Mora Villalpando and her attorney said.
The decision ends a four-year case against Mora Villalpando, 50, who came to the U.S. from Mexico 25 years ago on a visa that has long since expired, and who became well known for her advocacy on behalf of immigrants, especially detainees at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma.
“It’s a huge win,” said Mora Villalpando. Not yet in possession of the physical green card, the Seattle resident and consultant to nonprofits and community groups said as soon as she got it she planned to visit Mexico to see siblings and other relatives — it will be the first time in a quarter century — and was getting used to a new identity that didn’t include the word “undocumented.”
“It seems weird,” she said, recounting how she had to stop herself from describing herself that way at a meeting the other day. “It’s part of who I am.”
Mora Villalpando said it is especially important to show that ICE, under Biden, has the capacity to exercise prosecutorial discretion, which came to a virtual halt under former President Donald Trump.
ICE started proceedings against Mora Villalpando in 2017, and she has said she felt targeted by ICE because of her activism. An ICE arrest document said she came to the agency’s attention after giving an interview in which she talked about being undocumented. “It should also be noted that she has extensive involvement with anti-ICE protests and Latino advocacy programs,” an ICE officer wrote on the document.
At that time, her daughter was a Western Washington University student who had not yet turned 21 and was therefore unable to sponsor Mora Villalpando for a green card.
ICE did not detain Mora Villalpando while seeking to kick her out of the country, and she continued organizing protests and sending out news releases about conditions at the detention center. As she announced the news in her case Tuesday, she said a group she leads, La Resistencia, will hold a protest Thursday in front of ICE’s Seattle office to demand the agency exercise prosecutorial discretion in all deportation cases.
ICE is regularly using the prosecutorial discretion Biden announced upon taking office, even while a court challenge by the states of Texas and Louisiana winds its way through the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. A U.S. District Court judge temporarily blocked the policy, which focuses on people determined to be no threat to public safety, saying it was contrary to immigration laws.
“Prosecutorial discretion is firmly entrenched in every aspect of the American legal system as an important tool to preserve limited government resources, allow agencies to focus such resources on the cases that matter most, and achieve fair and just outcomes,” ICE said in a statement.
“We see this happening every week now,” said Matt Adams, legal director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, referring to deportation cases that the government has agreed to drop or at least put on hold.
In many cases, the Biden administration is dealing with the legacy of the Trump era.
In November 2019, an Everett welder and U.S. citizen named Carlos Rios was arrested outside the Pierce County jail, where he had been held on suspicion of driving his motorcycle under the influence. He had his passport on him at the time, according to a lawsuit brought by Rios in U.S. District Court of Western Washington. Still, he was he was taken to the detention center in Tacoma and held for a week.
Earlier this month, the government agreed to a $125,000 settlement of a lawsuit brought by Rios. “The government clearly recognized they messed up,” said Adams, whose organization represented Rios. ICE declined to comment.