Skip Navigation

Resistance and Retaliation: An Interview with Maru Mora-Villalpando

Image via Truthout

Maru Mora-Villalpando is an immigration activist with the group La Resistencia, working to improve the conditions at immigration detention centers and stop deportations. After years of leading high-profile protests to defend immigrants in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, Mora-Villalpando got the knock on the door she always feared: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel ordering her to appear in immigration court. Mora-Villalpando, at the time an undocumented immigrant herself, called it retaliation for her activism, while ICE called it business as usual. After months of court hearings, Mora-Villalpando received a continuation of her case until January 2019 and finally received permanent legal resident status in 2021. Even as she fought for her life in the United States, Mora Villalpando has not curtailed her activism—you will still find her on the front lines, fighting for other immigrants.

Anik Willig: What made you leave your home country of Mexico and come to the United States, and what was your experience of being undocumented in the United States?

Maru Mora-Villalpando: I had a tourist visa for a while already, so I used to come just to visit. I took the opportunity to come and practice my English. In the trips back and forth, the situation in Mexico got worse. My travels matched with the movement in Mexico against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and that really made me think that Mexico was becoming a very dangerous place. Additionally, my involvement in some union movements and student movements became risky. The president-elect also got killed in the middle of a huge rally. That marked a turning point in my life. I just thought, “Gosh, if this person gets killed in front of hundreds of people, what is going to happen to us? We’re nobody here, and I’m also a woman.” There was so much sexism, so much racism, so much classism that I couldn’t stay in Mexico. When I came in 1996, the last time I traveled from Mexico to here, I heard the news saying there was a change in the immigration laws. You’re not supposed to stay here too long, otherwise you will be barred from entering the United States. The information I got was very little and inaccurate. I, and many other immigrants, thought we had to stay now. And with time, I realized I was stuck because my visa expired. I ended up staying because of the changes that President Clinton made to the immigration law in 1996. That’s why I’m still here. 

I wouldn’t change my experience as an undocumented person for anything. Still, my undocumented experience is not at all like the majority of people I know. They really had to struggle across the border to make it here. They left because of fear of their personal lives. They lost their jobs. They couldn’t sustain their families. Organized crime had already taken over Mexico and domestic violence was rampant. I’ve seen people running for their lives through deserts and being exposed to animals and Border Patrol with weapons. My experience is nothing in comparison to the vast majority of people I know, but it still gave me the tools to understand my community. It made me understand that the United States creates a hierarchy among immigrants. There’s a serious stigma around not having papers. That really made me understand a lot of things and helped me figure out not only how I would go about living here in the United States but also how to create a community. 

AW: In various articles, you talk about coming from a very classist city in Mexico where sexism is widespread. Can you talk a little bit about that and how that compares to your experience in the United States? 

MMV: I think the classism and colorism here in Seattle are very different from that of Mexico City. Mexico is all competition. Mexico City people want to feel that they’re from the United States. They may also aim to look like white people. Mexicans prioritize light-skinned Mexicans and even those with long last names. It’s a product of colonialism. You have to pretend all the time to not be you. 

My last name is Villalpando, a long last name. People assumed my parents were Spanish and wealthy just because I was light-skinned and because of my last name. Classism is very clear, very in your face in Mexico City. When I came to Seattle, I was isolated and ignored. In Mexico, people are always looking at you. What are you wearing? How are you behaving? What are you saying? It’s very, very interactive. That difference, that coldness here in the United States was a culture shock.

AW: What was your thought process about revealing your undocumented status? What made you overcome the fear of disclosure?

MMV: Well, first, I couldn’t believe that by not having permission to stay in the United States, I would be treated like a criminal offender. I remember people telling me, “If you don’t have papers, they will call La Migra. They will handcuff you and take you away.” That doesn’t make any sense. Oppression works through community policing. In my community, rumors were spreading that families were being separated. I developed intense fear, especially because I didn’t want my daughter to be separated from me. But I think that fear grew into anger. ICE came and ran up against our community. They went around the streets and into apartment buildings. I started preparing myself well. I told my child since she was little that I was undocumented. I explained if we got separated, I would trust friends to make sure she got to me in Mexico. My daughter was fearful of me disclosing my status, but I knew I had to. I wanted to tell the people I marched with, “I’m just like you.” It was very difficult and took a lot of months of preparation for the first civil disobedience effort when I would be going public. The morning of, I couldn’t even drink a sip of anything because I was so nervous. But when I saw the GEO Group taking away a bus of detained immigrants, the fear went away. I was interviewed by the media then, and I told them I was undocumented.

That same year, in 2014, I got notifications on my LinkedIn app that an ICE officer was looking me up. Someone from Homeland Security was also looking up my profile. They knew I was undocumented. But it wasn’t until December 2017 that ICE sent a letter to my house. It seems to me like they came after me because they didn’t like the work I was doing. 

AW: You’ve previously denounced ICE as an agency of mass policing. Can you explain what you mean by this?

MMV: They control a population through a racialized system. They come after poor and low-income immigrants of color. It was clear once Trump ran for the presidency that they were more than happy to support him. Both US Customs and Border Protection and ICE unions endorsed Trump, and they have never endorsed any other presidential candidate before. They have always been agencies coming after my community to destroy us, but now they would have the blessing to do so even more. They already were rogue agencies without accountability. The Trump administration tried to wipe out any dissidents. In general, the surveillance infrastructure that they develop is incredible. We don’t know yet how much access to technology they have amassed. There’s probably way more that they have that we still haven’t found that is being used against people.

AW: Have you felt that things have changed in the transition to Biden’s presidency or that ICE and other immigration structures are still operating similarly to the Trump era?

MMV: I think most of it continues to be the same, but now we have some more access to the top. Previously, we moved all our advocacy work to the local level. The Biden administration acknowledged problems with the immigration system. Still, they have kept the same machine with minimal changes. That’s just not good enough.

AW: What was the result of your case and how did it feel to be ultimately granted legal status in the United States?

MMV: I was granted prosecutorial discretion since I didn’t have a criminal record. Prosecutorial discretion should also be used for people in detention and for people with criminal records. In my case, the same agency that chose to put me in deportation proceedings is the same agency that stopped the process against me. We were able to bend them. My case was relatively easy because I don’t have a criminal record and because I have a business and a child with US citizenship. Still, the law is usually not on our side. 

AW: You mentioned the idea of “good” versus “bad” immigrants. Can you talk about how that kind of rhetoric is prevalent in the United States and how it’s harmful?

MMV: If you’re undocumented, there’s this stigma around being undocumented. Yet, there’s no guarantee that if you “behave” as the system wants you to, you’re actually going to be treated fairly. That’s why when we fight for people in detention we usually focus on people who have criminal records. People that no one wants to touch. Most people who are in detention with criminal records never actually get the chance to fight their cases. It’s a money-driven and racialized system, so another system of control.

AW: Tell me more about your work with La Resistencia, the organization you founded.

MMV: I put a lot of effort into ensuring that the organization’s leadership is coming from inside, people burdened by the system. People with more privilege shouldn’t be in leadership positions. I started organizing those who had been released from detention whom I had a relationship with. We set up the leadership as people with experience in the immigration enforcement system. It is still very fulfilling to me to think that we are led by people who have experienced detention. When I won my case, I needed to step back from leadership. Although I went through the experience, now I don’t have the same level of risk that the rest of the leaders do. The idea is that the organization shows resistance from the people themselves.

AW: Can you speak about the horrors that you’ve witnessed in working with people in detention? 

MMV: There’s a lot of them. The worst thing that you can see is adults crying. Or when you hear people in detention asking for money, or food, or to tell their families they are okay. It’s like you’re being kidnapped. It’s also very common in detention centers to witness others trying to commit suicide. As an organizer, people have even admitted their attempts to me. My goal at La Resistencia is to bring humanity into these centers and ultimately shut them down.

AW: What do you imagine as alternatives to detention? What do you imagine as the future of the immigration system? 

MMV: The work is to shut down detention centers. The only alternative is freedom. ICE is relatively new. They just started in 2003. We don’t have to have them. The militarization of the border began in the 2000s. Before then, my community in Northern Mexico would cross here and people would cross back there at the border. Militarization of the border is just meant to control who comes and who goes. In the creation of NAFTA, governments prioritized capital, and they just made it more difficult for people to sustain themselves in whatever way they could. Coups sponsored by the United States in Latin America, as well as the climate crisis and other issues, have pushed people to migrate. Immigration has become the only way to survive. The militarization of the border here needs to end. 

AW: What would you say is the best way to create change? Would you say working outside the system through community organizing is the best way? How can people get involved?

MMV: Everybody has to do something, you know, and it’s up to each person. If you get involved in any way, you should follow the leadership of those who have the experience. We also need people who are in the system to work with us. One of the biggest victories we had this year was getting the City of Tacoma on our side. They supported the effort that prohibits private prisons and detentions in Washington. It’s an example of getting elected officials to work with us. It took time, but it’s an example of the change that can happen. We need to own our bodies. All these victories reflect our efforts; we have the tools we need.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.