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Immigrant Activists Maru Mora-Villalpando & Ravi Ragbir Keep Speaking Out Despite Deportation Threat

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President Trump has unveiled plans for a new so-called merit-based immigration system that would prioritize “highly-skilled” and English-speaking workers, while further restricting asylum seekers and immigrants who have family living in the United States. Although no legislative details for the plan have been revealed, Trump’s proposal is likely to hit a wall in Congress, where the Democrat-led House has repeatedly clashed with the Trump administration over immigration policy. Trump’s immigration policies have led to dire conditions for asylum seekers to the U.S. On Wednesday, a two-and-a-half year-old migrant boy died in U.S. custody, three days after he and his family were detained by Customs and Border Protection. Immigrant communities already established in the U.S. are also being targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with activists claiming they have been targeted for speaking out against the Trump administration. We speak with two prominent and outspoken immigration activists who are fighting their own deportation and have been targeted for their activism: Maru Mora-Villalpando and Ravi Ragbir. Mora-Villalpando is an activist with La Resistencia and Mijente, and Ragbir is executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition. Last month, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Ragbir in a free speech case, saying the First Amendment bars ICE from targeting activists for deportation based on their political speech.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. President Trump has unveiled plans for a new so-called merit-based immigration system that would prioritize highly skilled English-speaking workers, while further restricting asylum seekers and immigrants who have family living in the United States. Trump announced his plan in the White House Rose Garden Thursday.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As a result of our broken rules, the annual green card flow is mostly low-wage and low-skilled. Newcomers compete for jobs against the most vulnerable Americans and put pressure on our social safety net and generous welfare programs. Only 12% of legal immigrants are selected based on skill or based on merit.

AMY GOODMAN: Although no legislative details for the plan have been revealed, Trump’s proposal is likely to hit a wall in Congress, where the Democratically led House has repeatedly clashed with Trump over immigration policy. This is Democratic Congressmember Pramila Jayapal of Washington state responding to Trump’s plan.

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: It does not include any protections for DREAMers. It does not include any plan for the 11 million undocumented immigrants that are in this country that need a path to citizenship. It undermines the family immigration system that has been the cornerstone of our country’s immigration policy. And it sort of assumes that only one high-skilled set of workers are what the country needs, when we know that the country desperately needs workers of all skill levels. So, it’s not a plan. It is another attempt to fund a vanity wall.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s immigration proposal comes shortly after the administration purged top officials at the Department of Homeland Security in recent weeks, reportedly as part of a plan led by adviser Stephen Miller to steer the country towards even more hard-line immigration policies.

For more, we’re joined by two prominent and outspoken immigration activists who are fighting against their own deportations. Joining us in our New York studio, though she’s usually based in Seattle, Washington, is Maru Mora-Villalpando, an activist with La Resistencia, “The Resistance,” and the group Mijente. ICE moved to deport her last year even as her green card application is still pending, specifically noting her, quote, “extensive involvement in anti-ICE protests and Latino advocacy programs” and that she had, quote, “become a public figure.” She’s now part of a free speech lawsuit that aims to protect immigrants like herself.

Also with us, Ravi Ragbir is back, executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition here in New York. Last month, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Ragbir in his own free speech case, saying the First Amendment bars ICE from targeting activists for deportation based on their political speech.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Let me start by asking Maru about this so-called proposal that Trump worked on with his son-in-law, the New York developer Jared Kushner, who is also working on a Middle East peace plan, but to come up with immigration. Republicans as well as Democrats slammed it, saying there is very little there, and it doesn’t deal with, as Pramila Jayapal said, issues of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, DACA, people on the border, family separation.

MARU MORA-VILLALPANDO: Well, it’s another white supremacist take on immigration. We are not surprised of this. But let’s remember that actually bills in Congress in the past, since 2007, have included a tier system, a merit system. So, it’s not brand new, but what they’re doing is going even harder on our communities. So I think it’s just another step towards this war on immigrants.

Although there might be some congressional people saying that they’re against these basics of a plan, we have seen that even Democrats have recently approved a bigger budget for ICE. ICE keeps asking for more money, and they keep giving them money. I think that it’s important to realize that what they’re presenting has been there before. The problem that I see is that it could actually somehow become true, since so much money has been given already to ICE. And we have seen that those hard lines that they are setting up could be somehow implemented regardless of what Congress do.

AMY GOODMAN: And Ravi Ragbir?

RAVI RAGBIR: So, he talks about merit-based. It’s his hypocrisy, because he himself has not merit to be in the office he’s in right now. But if you look at the larger scope of it, it is part of his plan, when we talk about stopping migration from specific countries, countries that don’t have the resources because they have been raped by Americans taking away their resources, so that they don’t have the education process to have this higher skill level of people who can migrate and who want to migrate. So, it is deliberate.

It is also the fact that he didn’t look at the 11 million is that he will now be able to focus on them to remove them. You know, I’ve been talking—I mentioned that ICE talk about ethnic cleansing that this administration is focused on. So, it is a deliberate aspect of that plan. Also remember that his daughter and his son-in-law has been selling visas to people from other parts of the world, right? So if you look on a merit base and you look at this, it’s all about the Benjamins, baby, as Representative Omar said. It’s all about the Benjamins.

AMY GOODMAN: And when you say selling visas, you mean people paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a visa. They put money into a development project, for example, and then they’re given a green card?

RAVI RAGBIR: Correct. So, if you look at the investment visa, the EB-1 visa, I believe it’s called, they have been—that’s a million-dollar industry, if you look at what it is and how it is implemented. And then, if you look at the merit-based on high-skilled workers, they can add a lot more to that. So, I am seeing this as a deliberate—even though they’re looking at this as an immigration aspect, it is also deliberate about the money that they can make through this process.

AMY GOODMAN: Ravi, talk about your own case. You’ve been fighting deportation for years. And, you know, we were—Democracy Now! was there when you were taken into custody, when you were held. You were released. But you’ve just won a free speech case. Explain what happened.

RAVI RAGBIR: So, the court has recognized that there was retaliation against me, and that they took me into custody and were implementing my deportation because of the things I’ve said and the things I’ve highlighted. You know, I just mentioned that this is about the money, that not only the president’s family is going to make all of this. I speak openly about how harshly this agency is. They even quoted some of the directors saying that Ravi has talked about being—that the ICE is like Nazis, and we are moving towards a dark period of history where history is repeating itself. They don’t like that, because they know that it is true. But they also want to avoid the publicity.

So, the case actually recognized that the retaliation was evident, but it wasn’t just about the free speech. It is about the fact that the jurisdiction stripping of Congress, 1252g, which takes away the jurisdiction of the courts to adjudicate cases like this—they have said that the free speech trumps that 1252g. So, on that alone, it’s a huge victory. And now many people are wondering: What does it mean now?

AMY GOODMAN: And, Maru, ICE moved to deport you last year, even as your green card application’s still pending, specifically noting, quote, “extensive involvement in anti-ICE protests and Latino advocacy programs” and that you, quote, “became a public figure.” You, too, are now part of a free speech lawsuit.

MARU MORA-VILLALPANDO: Yes, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of La Resistencia and the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites, that is based in Washington state. They’re a group that support our work. In our lawsuit, what we argue is the chilling effect that this retaliation has in our groups. Not only that we have to invest now the little capacity and resources that we have to fight the detention of people in Washington state and their deportation, now some of those resources have to be used to keep me in the country.

But also, when this retaliation comes against our freedom of speech, it does create a chilling effect on those that are part of our groups or want to be part of our groups. And so we have seen people in our groups that have to step back, because they’re afraid they’re going to be next. So that’s basically what we’re arguing, is that the government needs to stop this retaliation against political dissidents, because it does trump everything else that people want to be involved. It does create this level of fear, that is actually working in some instances, where people that wanted to be public or wanted to support our work somehow, now they feel that they shouldn’t, because they could be next.

AMY GOODMAN: In Vermont, another key free speech case filed in 2018 by the farmworker organizing group Migrant Justice argues ICE unlawfully surveilled, harassed, arrested and detained their leading members. This is Zully Palacios speaking on Democracy Now! a few years ago.

ZULLY PALACIOS: [translated] I am sure that they sought me out because of the work I am doing to defend human rights, and not for anything else, because what they wanted to do was get into the community and intimidate us that way. But they’re not going to succeed. We will never stop defending human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Zully Palacios in Vermont. Maru, talk about what’s happening now with you. How often do you have to go to court? Do you fear every time that you will be deported? When we were covering Ravi, he was just going for a routine check-in when they took him.

MARU MORA-VILLALPANDO: Yeah. We never know. Even when we go to court or when we go and do actions, we never know if ICE is going to decide to put me in detention. Last April 30th, I had another court date. It was a master hearing. This is the third master hearing I’ve had. We did an application. My daughter is a U.S. citizen. So, last year, when she turned 21, she submitted an application for me. We’re still waiting to hear what’s happening to that application. As a matter of fact, the day of my court date, we got the government requesting even more evidence we have already submitted.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think you would improve your chances if you just stopped your activism?

MARU MORA-VILLALPANDO: Probably I would have, but I’ve done this work not because I want a green card. I do this work because I want everybody to stay in the country and not have to go through what we’ve seen families have to go through. If I had been quiet, I probably would have had the green card a long time ago. But that’s not the reason, again, why I do this work.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Ravi Ragbir, where does your case stand now?

RAVI RAGBIR: We are not sure what is going to happen, whether the government is going to appeal this. And the only—

AMY GOODMAN: How long have you lived here?

RAVI RAGBIR: I have lived here just under 30 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Thirty years.

RAVI RAGBIR: Three decades. I have a U.S. citizen daughter, a U.S. citizen wife. I would actually like to also mention that even this administration doesn’t want to give green cards. So, I will say that the system has been backlogged to stop even processing of green cards of people who don’t want to—who don’t speak up. So, we have to challenge that.

We also—and may I take time to mention that it is not only immigration activists? But Scott Warren, whose case is going to be heard, he’s going to go on trial very soon. And we need to stand up against that, because he’s an activist who has done work trying to protect people on the border.

In terms of my case, we don’t know where—we are waiting for the government to either figure whether they’re appealing it or allowing it to go back down to the district. We are waiting for that over the next 30 days to see what happens.

AMY GOODMAN: And your reference to Scott Warren, an activist leaving water in the desert so migrants won’t die in the desert along the border.


AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Ravi Ragbir, immigrants’ rights activist, executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, and Maru Mora-Villalpando, activist with the group La Resistencia and Mijente. They’re both fighting deportation after being targeted for their activism. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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