By Maru Mora Villalpando
Special to the Eagle
When 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— for the 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 illnesses or 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 strike so 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 address?
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 deportation.
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 detention center.
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 liberation.
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!”
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. Adam Smith, 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 orders in January 2018, we knew organizers could be next.
During 2017, we saw cases of organizers being detained after attending actions of Migrant Justice. People spoke to the media about their loved ones being detained in Pacific County in Washington. Even those that attended the J20 protestsin 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.
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 detained.
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 Cantwell. 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.
We have attended every hearing in my case alongside hundreds of people. 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 liberation.
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 a community organizer with NWDC Resistance, 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. A version of this story appears on LawAtTheMargins.com