RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Trump administration is cracking down on illegal immigration, which means some undocumented immigrants in this country have been reluctant to come out of the shadows for fear of getting deported by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, or ICE. Others say they have felt the need to speak out, and that is what has gotten them in trouble with authorities. A number of cases across the country have immigrant activists crying foul and claiming their First Amendment rights are being violated. NPR's John Burnett joins us now from Austin. Hey, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: So what's going on here?
BURNETT: Well, the ACLU and immigration lawyers say a couple dozen activists and volunteers around the country have been arrested or face fines for their work. They claim the reason is retaliation, though the government says, if they're undocumented, they're fair game.
MARTIN: All right. So give us an example - what evidence is there that federal immigration agents are targeting activists?
BURNETT: Well, one high-profile case is that of Maru Mora-Villalpando. She came from Mexico City to the U.S. on a tourist visa in 1996 and then overstayed. She turned into a well-known activist in the Northwest, speaking out against ICE's detention policies. In December, though, she had been here for 22 years with no criminal record, ICE told her she's facing deportation. They said she came to their attention when she was quoted in the media saying she's undocumented. And it says right there in her charging document, quote, "it should also be noted that she has extensive involvement with anti-ICE protests and Latino advocacy programs." I reached Villalpando at her home in Bellingham, Washington.
MARU MORA-VILLALPANDO: My first sense was that ICE was sending me a signal to stop my work. The public needs to know what's going on.
BURNETT: Now, the United Nations Office of Human Rights has spotlighted her case. They're calling on ICE not to retaliate against her because of her advocacy work. And today, she's scheduled to be in immigration court in Seattle to make this defense before a judge.
MARTIN: I mean, this is a serious accusation - right? - accusing ICE of political retaliation. Is the agency saying anything about this?
BURNETT: Right. The government thinks it's all hogwash. And ICE says it does not retaliate against people for their political activity and to suggest otherwise is irresponsible. A spokesman emailed me and said the allegations are just wrong. ICE agents are too busy with their work to engage in vendetta deportations.
MARTIN: Immigration experts you've talked to, I assume they've got some kind of perspective on this?
BURNETT: Well, immigrant advocates see this administration as really taking a hostile posture toward sanctuary cities and anyone standing in the way of its immigration clampdown. Omar Jadwat is director of the Immigrant Rights Project at the ACLU.
OMAR JADWAT: You have the attorney general, the secretary of Homeland Security, the acting director of ICE, all, you know, making various threats to sanctuary cities and their officials.
BURNETT: I mean, he reasons that it's not a stretch to think they would target anti-ICE protesters who are undocumented. But I also spoke with Doris Meissner. She was commissioner of immigration under President Clinton, and she's now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. She's skeptical that immigration agents would be picking on activists. Here she is.
DORIS MEISSNER: Activists can be swept up in that, just like a variety of other groups that have been unprepared to face deportation.
BURNETT: So Doris Meissner points out Trump has given ICE this sweeping new authority to apprehend anybody they come across who's in the country unlawfully, and they're running with it.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's John Burnett reporting for us from Austin this morning. Hey, John, thanks so much.
BURNETT: You bet, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.