The making of an activist seattle met

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.

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 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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.