Illustration by Nigel Buchanan
On a warm July morning outside the field office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building in Tukwila, a familiar figure stands among a small group of protesters. Unfurled on the sidewalk before the 47-year-old activist is a banner that reads “CHINGA LA MIGRA” (“F--- ICE”). Straight black hair, glasses with dark frames, a black “Abolish ICE” T-shirt, jeans, and trademark black tennis shoes with pink laces, comfortable enough to spend a long day demonstrating. This protest, to support Fidel, a man on kidney dialysis facing deportation after 20 years in the U.S., is just one of several she has planned for the week. Everyone in the local immigrant rights movement knows the woman who once, long ago, passed inconspicuously as a mom who liked to take her baby girl to Spanish storytelling in Ballard, but is now the living embodiment of a social justice warrior.
For Maru Mora-Villalpando the fight began long before president Donald Trump took office. She’s most notable as an organizer for the group Northwest Detention Center Resistance, which began in 2014 when detainees went on a hunger strike to demand better conditions in Tacoma’s immigrant detention center—one of the largest such centers in the country, and the only Immigration and Customs Enforcement (or ICE) facility in the Pacific Northwest. That’s given her a national and international platform, including regular appearances on MSNBC, Democracy Now, and CNN’s Spanish network.
Yet there’s no indication that the man approaching her now recognizes her.
“Who are you demonstrating for or against?” he asks, looking around at the small group of protestors in front of the Tukwila immigration office.
Maru examines him closely—white guy, sunglasses, checkered button-up shirt—then asks, “Who are you?”
He starts explaining that he supports the protestors’ cause but he believes “bad people” like rapists and murderers shouldn’t be allowed to enter the country.
Maru soon cuts him off. “I just think that you want to argue with us,” she says, “and we don’t want to argue with you."
“That’s the problem with the radical left. They can’t see reason.”
“All right,” Maru replies, looking at her phone now. “Thank you.”
She has no time for Republican talking points.
Maru doesn’t just fight for the people facing deportation. She has a personal stake. The Mexico City native has been undocumented since 1996, when her six-month visa expired.
And despite having protested in front of ICE buildings for years, and having publicly outed herself in 2014, Maru never faced the threat of detention or deportation herself.
Then in December 2017 she received a notification to appear in immigration court—the first step to deportation proceedings.
If expelled from the country, Maru Mora-Villalpando would likely be sent to a place she has not set foot in for nearly half her life. She barely associates the life she has in the U.S. with the life she had there.
She was the youngest of nine children, all living under one roof in Mexico City. The family followed politics closely—newspapers were always around the house—though they didn’t all agree on the same values. Her father worked for Mexican police; Maru would grow up to say things at protests like, “we don’t engage with police.”
Young Maru found inspiration in her older sister, Carmen, who knew German, French, and English, and took Maru to meetings at a church where they interpreted Bible teachings about social justice. Maru also watched a lot of TV news, and soon grew critical of the reporters who she says recycled press releases and made classist remarks; when she went to college in Mexico City, she majored in journalism and later taught ESL classes for adults. Maru caught the travel bug from her entrepreneurial mother, who often ventured to the U.S. border in Texas to buy second-hand clothing she would then sell in Mexico.
On January 1, 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement—signed by the U.S., Mexico, and Canada—came into effect. After that everyone in Mexico wanted to learn English, Maru says. As an ESL teacher, she thought she could go anywhere. Mexico was about to face a financial crisis, spurred by the Mexican government’s decision to devalue the peso against the U.S. dollar.
Maru married at 20, despite her family’s advice against marrying so young. (“They were right,” she says with a laugh now.) She traveled to the U.S. in 1994 and 1995 with her husband, who had a relative in Seattle. The third time, on April 29, 1996, she was 25 and on a six-month visa. She wanted to improve her English, thinking she would return when her visa expired. Because the political climate in Mexico worsened, she stayed longer.
“But then,” she says, “I got stuck.”
On September 30, 1996, president Bill Clinton signed a bill into law that would define immigration policy for years to come. Dubbed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, the hardline legislation ramped up both deportation efforts and enforcement at the southern border. It required that immigrants who had been illegally in the U.S. for more than 180 days remain outside the U.S. for at least three years before they return. If they were here for more than a year, they would have to wait 10 years.
By the time Maru found out about the new law, her six-month visa had expired, and she was in the U.S. illegally. She knew that if she returned to Mexico, she may never be able to come back to the U.S. So she stayed.
Josefina Alanis Mora can’t remember when she learned her mother was undocumented—she was very young—but she remembers having nightmares about what would happen if Maru were to get deported.
Maru had remained discreet in the U.S. She avoided speaking Spanish, avoided speaking at all because of her accent, or hanging out with people from Mexico. She lay low.
But when her daughter, Josefina, was born in August 1997, something changed. Maru was 26 by then but still felt like a teenager. It was a lot of pressure, trying to create a life for her daughter that would be fulfilling. She wanted to expose Josefina to her culture, to know the kind of person her mom was: Maru, the real Maru. She began by taking Josefina to Spanish storytime in Ballard and taught her to speak Spanish at home.
Little by little, Maru Mora-Villalpando’s involvement in the immigrant community began to grow. And her passion would soon find its ideal target.
A year after the al-Qaeda attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, president George W. Bush signed into effect the Department of Homeland Security and, a few months later, ICE, which focused on border control. Immigration detention centers opened soon after.
Maru says she knew immigrants would become the scapegoats after 9/11, would face even more challenges, and that she would have to ramp up her fight for her community. In 2003—the same year ICE began—she started working at Casa Latina as an ESL instructor and working as an organizer. She also got divorced, which she now says is one of the best decisions of her life, despite having to live in poverty and start from scratch.
“She worked really, really hard from nothing when she got divorced to be able to provide for me,” Josefina says. For a long time they couldn’t afford to eat at restaurants, not even on rare or special occasions. Then one day, Maru came home, excited and carrying her first paycheck. She asked her daughter if she wanted to eat out, and they did. Josefina ordered a cheeseburger. “I was so excited because I was eating with my mom at a restaurant.”
As a child, Josefina says she didn’t understand what her mother had been involved in; she was embarrassed at first, not knowing how to explain to her friends at her majority-white school what her mom did for a living.
Now 21, Josefina has become a reliable supporter, the one who drops everything she’s doing to drive to Tacoma if Maru is at a protest and forgets something at home; the one who cooks for Maru and makes sure she eats, who cleans the house when Maru’s gone all day; the one who helps rally the younger troops for a demonstration and marches alongside her mother.
When Josefina was accepted to Western Washington University in Bellingham, about a two-hour drive north of Seattle, she asked her mom if she would move there with her, where they now live with Josefina’s partner. “She’s the only family that I have here in the U.S.,” Josefina says.
February 24, 2014 was the day NWDC Resistance began—with a protest outside the Northwest Detention Center, where 10 people locked arms to try to block detention buses from leaving Tacoma. As they passed by, Maru saw the hands of detained immigrants waving from the bus windows. They saw her, she thought. They saw the protest, they saw the support.
It was spiritual moment for Maru, she says, the moment she found her calling.
She knew the risks when she first outed herself as undocumented in February 2014 and 10 months later wrote her own story for Al Jazeera America. She was terrified she’d lose her business—Latino Advocacy—her daughter, and the life she built in the U.S. But she thought of those detainees, waving to her from the bus.
“I came to a realization that most of those who write or speak about immigration in the media are not activists or even immigrants, let alone undocumented ones,” she wrote.
Then, three years later, a reckoning.
Maru and Josefina were in their Bellingham home on December 20, 2017 when they heard a knock at the front door. Maru answered. A delivery person handed her a letter. She passed the envelope to Josefina as she signed to confirm she received it. When she closed the door, she turned around to see that her daughter was crying, holding the order for her mother to appear in immigration court. Josefina’s worst childhood nightmares were coming true.
ICE agents had identified Maru as undocumented through a news article, according to a document Maru obtained through a public records request. “Upon review of the article and available information regarding her situation, it should also be noted that she has extensive involvement with anti-ICE protests and Latino advocacy programs,” ICE officer Timothy Black wrote on the document. She has no criminal record, he also observed. “Villalpando has become a public figure primarily in Whatcom County, where she currently resides.”
Maru also learned that a state Department of Licensing employee had shared Maru’s personal information with ICE officer Black on December 7, 2017, a week before he filed a notice of appearance for her deportation hearing.
Maru and her attorneys say they believe ICE retaliated against her. And she’s not the only activist who has recently faced risk of deportation. Last year, ICE detained several, including: a 22-year-old who had recently spoken at a news conference as a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in Mississippi; four activists with workers’ rights organization Migrant Justice; and an activist who led protests against her mom’s detention.
ICE denies any form of retaliation and says any unauthorized immigrants are subject to enforcement, such as deportation. A spokesperson explained in a statement to Seattle Met that the agency prioritizes resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security or public safety, and that “intelligence-driven leads” can include open-source information.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make,” ICE spokesperson Carissa Cutrell said in a statement to Seattle Met. “Any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible, speculative, and inaccurate.”
ICE is strong because of two factors, Maru says: money and lack of accountability. Go after its funding and its power, and you’ll dismantle the federal agency. It was U.S. foreign policy, she says, that caused international competition for people to migrate and, in the process, be criminalized for it. Maru’s movement in part reminds the country that there was once a time when ICE didn’t exist.
ICE, of course, sees things differently. “The recent calls to abolish ICE are dangerously misguided and overlook the vital work that ICE officers and special agents perform each day to keep communities safe,” ICE spokesperson Liz Johnson said. “Instead of being insulted with politically motivated attacks, the men and women of ICE should be praised for risking life and limb every day in the name of national security and public safety.”
But one of the agency’s most vocal critics remains unflagging in her calls for its elimination. When Maru’s not on the streets, she often has her headphones in, answering calls and texting with journalists, emailing contacts, or posting on social media. She takes notes on every detainee’s call to remember each case.
At 3pm one Tuesday this summer, Maru sat in a big chair by the window at the Red Elm Cafe in Tacoma. She was waiting for a meeting with another community organizer to prep for a Tacoma City Council meeting later that afternoon, when they would ask officials to revoke the business license of GEO Group, the company that operates the Northwest Detention Center. She had already received several calls from detainees on her cell phone. Two days before that, 26 calls, including those who had been deported and were now in Mexico.
The detainees and deportees are often calling to ask for her help. “No, we don’t help. We collaborate,” she tells them. “We’re going to fight with you and we might lose…but it’s with you, and you lead the fight, not us.”
But her fandom doesn’t just come from detention centers. In the span of 30 minutes, three admirers had approached her to thank her for her work. It was always like this, Maru says.
Well, not always. Hours later, during public comment, Tacoma mayor Victoria Woodards butchered Maru’s name several times as she read it—somehow not recognizing the leader of the detention center protests she once attended as a mayoral candidate.
Maru dislikes politicians. They come to protest for the photo shoot but don’t use their influence to take risks with policymaking. And elected officials showing up at protests, she says, is offensive.
Barbara Suarez-Galeano, an organizer at Detention Watch Network, says Maru commands the room even when she’s not speaking. Maru’s most notable for her frankness, Suarez-Galeano says, which was both intimidating and inspiring to her.
“You always know what Maru is thinking. She tells it like it is. … It could be a legislator, it could be a person on the street, and you’ll get the same straightforward answer from her.”
Suarez-Galeano believes that previous generations have made the mistake of settling for watered-down reforms that ultimately had no power, and could be further used to criminalize the immigrant community. In the case of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, for example, the policy was also a temporary solution, held political hostage by Trump for a border wall, and ultimately led to more broken promises—politicians never provided a clear path to citizenship for DACA recipients. Suarez-Galeano says DACA also ultimately contributed to the harmful rhetoric that sets the immigrant rights movement back with the assumption that adults are “irresponsible” and don’t deserve the same protections.
Here comes Maru, a warrior of the cause, who’s out to make people confront their true alliances. With Maru, there’s no walking on eggshells over political differences. For Maru, there are right-wingers who are honest about where they stand. Then there are people like some Democratic politicians who speak like supporters but ultimately don’t act on it—and they are much worse, she says.
“There’s no middle, right?” she recently asked rhetorically over lunch. “There’s the people in power, and then all of us. And we’re down here,” she gestured low.
But if there’s no middle ground how can this country ever stop being so polarized? Maru says all people need to go through the process of identifying their own privilege and what their role has been.
“It’s not easy to give up privilege. It’s not easy to stop being comfortable,” Maru says. “Right now people want us to change but don’t want to lose anything on their way there. And that’s just not possible. To change this country, people will have to lose a lot of things.”
On June 26, 2018—the same day the Supreme Court stood by Trump’s travel ban—Maru arrived at the immigration court in downtown Seattle for a second deportation hearing. Just a month earlier, an immigration judge denied her motion to terminate the deportation proceedings. Outside the building more than 100 demonstrators poured into the street as they held signs to support Maru. Inside she and her lawyer faced an immigration judge who suggested there were different forms of relief available to her, including applying for a green card through her daughter, a U.S. citizen who turned 21 in August.
Before the notice to appear, Maru and Josefina say they didn’t fully understand what families experienced. It wasn’t until the letter that they felt the full effect of the threat of deportation. They were upset, they were scared—but most of all, they were angry.
Yet Maru had one big advantage other undocumented immigrants didn’t—she had the benefit of being a public figure, and the full strength of the activist network behind her, including a team of lawyers. While she couldn’t work during her proceedings, she says she had enough savings (about $10,000) to make it through six months; but donations from supporters poured in for her case. Josefina also suspects that ICE didn’t come to arrest her because of her notoriety, that her mother ultimately benefits from her celebrity status as an activist. The floor of support, the media coverage, the public demonstrations for her hearings—others in her shoes aren’t so lucky. Some face trial completely alone.
As Maru walked out of the immigration courtroom, reporters filing after her, the judge began on another case. Several immigrants and their families awaited their hearings.
In a moment Maru would step out of the courthouse and onto the Second Avenue sidewalk, emerging from the shadow of the building with her fist in the air, eliciting a cheer from the crowd. She would tell them her good news—she wasn’t being deported. She’d demand that the building owner evict ICE as a tenant, then march alongside the protestors to the federal district court on Fifth Avenue, shutting down the streets and chanting for immigrant rights—both undocumented and Muslim immigrants.
But for now, as Maru exited the crowded court room, she reached her hand out and muttered something quietly to one of the women waiting.
“What did you tell her?” a reporter asked her later.
“You are not alone,” she said. “We’re fighting for you.”