ICE Came After Me, and I Fought Back
By Maru Mora Villalpando
LAW AT THE MARGINS 25 July 2018
Maru Mora Villalpando is a community organizer with NWDC
a grassroots volunteer group working to end all detentions and
deportations in Washington state and to shut down the Northwest
Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash. Maru also is a founder member of MiJente,
a national political home for Latinx communities across the U.S. She is
a single mother who recently has been targeted
by ICE and
put on deportation proceedings due to her work bringing to light the
inhumane conditions at NWDC in collaboration with people detained there.
I opened the door on a cold, late December afternoon, right before
heading out with my daughter, I remember sharing confused looks with
her, wondering who was at our door. We don’t receive visitors often.
Most people don’t know where we live, and as a matter of fact, I don’t
even have bills on my name since I’m an undocumented immigrant mother in
the United States for more than 20 years now.
I opened the door to discover a mail person handing me a letter with my
name. It was certified mail so I had to sign to confirm the receipt of
it. I took the envelope, saw the logo—ICE (U.S.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement)—and knew immediately what it was. A
letter from ICE meant they were beginning deportation proceedings
against me. I remember chuckling and thinking: Is this how they come to
my house? Via certified mail?
I didn’t realize I handed the letter to my daughter while I signed the
receipt. When the mail person left, I closed the door, turned to my
daughter and saw her with the letter in her hand. She was reading it,
and tears were coming down her face. The envelope was ripped in many
pieces. She was crying. All I could do was hug her and say, “Don’t
worry. Everything will be OK. They won’t separate us.”
Then, I could feel this rage taking over my body. How dare anyone make
my daughter cry. How can anyone try to tear my family apart? As a single
mother I always have fought to keep my daughter by my side, and to
ensure her safety. Being a woman makes it twice as difficult.
That rage was the same rage I have felt for decades, since the first
time I heard from other immigrants like me, telling me horrifying
stories of families being separated by “la migra”—people taken,
handcuffed and deported because they work without a piece of paper that
would allow them to be in the country “legally.” I have developed this
rage during decades of fighting against family separations, lobbying for
immigration reform and learning how we immigrants are used in the
political game as scapegoats.
It is the same rage I feel every day I receive a call from someone
detained at the Northwest
Detention Center (NWDC) in
Tacoma, Wash., one of the largest for-profit detention centers on the
West Coast. Detainees tell me they are not able to talk to their loved
ones because the calls are too expensive. They say there are people at
the facility with mental
people that require surgery, and no one will provide the medical
services and urgent care necessary for their cases. They state many
times they are going on a hunger
someone finally will listen.
That cold December afternoon, the rage was about my daughter and me.
This time, ICE, la migra, was coming after me.
I called my compañeras
de lucha (fighting companions), and a good friend of mine, a
lawyer. The first question they asked was: How did they have your home
2014 civil disobedience action at NWDC. Photo Credit: Liz Jones of KUOW
The important point here is ICE already knew of my existence. They have
known about me since at least February 2014, when I did a civil
disobedience action at
NWDC to stop deportation buses, calling for an end to all detention and
deportations. I and others joined the call with undocumented immigrants
across America: #Not1More
We joined the direct action against ICE by staging our own shutdown in
Tacoma. There, I came out as an undocumented mother, willing to be
arrested, so people in our state would know about the existence of the
This action also was meant to show that we, undocumented people, were
not afraid and that we would fight and lead our own struggle for
When we shut down one of the streets that rainy, cold February morning,
one of the vans attempting to leave with people detained (shackled to
the waist, hands and feet) had to stop right in front of us. We were on
the ground, five of us, sitting on the wet pavement, linked by PVC pipes
in our arms. I became nervous and afraid of the arrests. But when the
van stopped in front of us, I could see the driver’s angry eyes.
Immediately behind him, I saw hands, hands moving, and I realized those
were the hands of people detained and shackled. I immediately told my compañeros:
“Shout! No están solos! Shout with me!”
Maru waves at detainees being transported by Geo Group bus. Photo: NWDC
And we shouted nonstop, chanting “no están solos!” We kept repeating
this Spanish phrase, which means “you are not alone,” until the van
began to move backward and went back to the detention center.
At this moment, I stopped being afraid. I realized that was the reason
why we had to risk arrest, so the detainees knew they are not alone. We
are with them, with all of them.
We didn’t get arrested, but what came next was much more powerful than
the shutdown action we did. People detained that witnessed our action,
two weeks later, began the largest hunger strike in a detention center
in the U.S. Over 1,200
people refused meals to
call attention to the inhumane conditions they face every day in the
name of the immigration system and profits.
Since that day, March 7, 2014, the same group that helped put together
the shutdown action remained together so we all could support the hunger
strike. I became the spokesperson for our group and for people detained.
Two lawyers and I crashed a “community meeting” ICE organized that same
month to address the hunger strike in NWDC. We were not invited, but
another organization gave us their space in the meeting. We went to the
same building in downtown Seattle to meet with ICE officials, where I
now go to my court hearings for my own deportation case.
Later that same year, in May 2014, I had the opportunity to travel to
Washington, D.C., and we requested a meeting with top officials at the Department
of Homeland Security.
I organized a delegation of four people to attend this meeting, with
support from the office of Rep.
the congressman representing the district where NWDC is located. After
some back and forth, I was allowed to go into the building, even though
I don’t have a Social Security number.
The first strike we supported lasted 56 days. After that, there were two
more that year, in August and in October, and we continued supporting
people in detention and in hunger strikes. There have been over a dozen
hunger strikes at NWDC, and they have extended to other places, such as Texas and Oregon.
Since 2014, we have not stopped. Guided by people in detention, we
expose the inhumane conditions and fight alongside them to ensure their
leadership and organizing is protected from the outside. But we don’t
assume to be the leaders. We have shown the power of our collective by
respecting people detained, not falling into the trap of division
created by the system that tries to create levels of worthiness. We
fight for all.
Our work has been successful. Mainstream media now cover these news
stories. They also call us and recognize our expertise. Legal cases have
been filed. The Washington attorney general filed a lawsuit
against The Geo Group for
their “voluntary $1 per day work,” the ACLU filed
against Geo and ICE in
the case of Jesus Chavez being beaten up by a Geo guard for joining a
hunger strike, and the city of Tacoma passed
an ordinance prohibiting
Geo from expanding their current building capacity. Hundreds of people
attend our actions every month. After this new U.S. regime announced a
war against immigrants, first during the launch of a presidential
campaign in 2015, and then immediately upon taking office with the
issuing of executive
January 2018, we knew organizers could be next.
During 2017, we saw cases of organizers being detained after attending
actions of Migrant
People spoke to the media about their loved ones being detained
in Pacific County in Washington.
Even those that attended the J20
Washington, D.C., were targeted.
I didn’t expect a letter to be sent to my house telling me I was next.
But when I received one, I knew this wouldn’t be the first time we fight
back. As we have done for many others, we began mobilizing and creating
a defense committee and announced publicly we would not be intimidated.
Hundreds of people showed up to the ICE building in downtown Seattle on
Jan. 16, 2018, despite extreme cold weather. Hundreds of supporters
began to write, text, call, email, lending us support of all
kinds—legal, monetary, spiritual, even offering to feed my daughter and
me, if necessary.
Maru’s immigration court date in March 2018. Photo: NWDC Resistance
It was such an overwhelming experience. My daughter and I cried, but
this time, our tears were due to the love shown by our community. Even
people detained began calling me just to find out if I was OK, saying,
“You are not alone.” Now, my tears are full of love coming from inside
those walls. Now I understand how they felt when I was outside chanting
for them. Now they are chanting for me, even if they are still inside
All of this support has given us the resources and energy required to
fight back. We received the support of one of our federal senators, Maria
Her office was able to obtain a document ICE denied my lawyer, I-213,
the form ICE sends to the immigration judge explaining why I should
appear before him to begin my deportation proceedings.
This document shows
what we knew: I was being targeted because I organize against ICE and in
support of my immigrant, Latinx community.
We also learned that the Washington State Department of Licensing gave
my personal information to ICE,
which is how they obtained my home address.
Maru with supporters at her June immigration hearing. Photo: NWDC
We have attended every hearing in my case alongside hundreds
Every time I go in that courtroom, I know I’m not alone. Every time I go
into the courtroom, I count how many families besides mine are there.
And I always wonder how different the outcome of each of their cases
would be if hundreds of supporters would show up for them as well. Every
time I see the eyes of other mothers like me fighting to keep their
families together, and when I receive calls from the detention center
(mainly from men, since that is the biggest population incarcerated
there), I can hear the desperation in their voices. But I also hear the
hope. They know we answer the phone, and most importantly, we are
willing to fight alongside them.
I know ICE
is targeting me because
I made the decision to protect my family and my community, but I don’t
regret doing so. I made a commitment because I can’t wait for someone
else to do it for me. I believe we are the leaders of our own
Activism is not a choice. It’s a need, and not all activism looks the
same. Everyone must contribute in some way or another. We have people
released from the detention center taking leadership in our group. We
have white people helping us with logistics during actions. We
collaborate with other groups fighting prisons. We open the spaces at
every action recognizing the stolen land we stand on and the different
first nations of the land.
Whatever people end up doing to support our work, we invite them to be
familiar with our work at the local and national level, and to show up
in support of those detained and those in deportation proceedings.
We are not going anywhere without a fight. As a mother, I will continue
fighting to stay with my daughter, and I will continue supporting my
community. I won’t be intimidated. I won’t allow fear to take over my
life. I will continue working until ICE is abolished and NWDC is shut
down. I won’t stop.
Maru Mora Villalpando is presenting on community
responses to the police state at
Fearless Cities Summit in
New York City on July 29.
To support her work with the NWDC Resistance, please donate here.
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