Above: Maria Espinoza, founder of The Remembrance Project, speaks at a news conference to oppose the Senate immigration reform bill on Capitol Hill in 2013.
On March 15, 2019, Donald Trump sat behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office and signed the first veto of his presidency, blocking a resolution passed by Congress that would have reversed his declaration of a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Before he signed the veto, Trump looked to his right and addressed Sabine Durden, whose son was killed in 2012 by a drunk driver who was in the country illegally. “They will not have died in vain. Did I tell you that a long time ago? Four years ago, right?” Trump said. Durden is a leading figure in the Angel Moms movement, which calls attention to U.S. citizens who have been victims of crime committed by “illegal aliens.”
The woman responsible for elevating mothers like Durden to the national stage is Maria Espinoza, a native of Houston. In 2009, after four law enforcement officers in Houston died in shootings or car accidents that involved undocumented immigrants, Espinoza founded the Remembrance Project. The goal was to find people hurt by crime and amplify their stories, casting so-called illegal invaders as uniquely prone to murder, rape and drunk driving (although statistics show the opposite). Espinoza seeks to squelch amnesty efforts, deport anyone who’s here illegally and harden the border. She travels around the country organizing events where families of crime victims hold up a banner called the Stolen Lives Quilt.
Espinoza is not herself an Angel Mom, but she often talks about how her father immigrated “the right way” from Mexico. “We are not anti-immigrant,” Espinoza told BuzzFeed in 2015. “We are against illegal aliens trespassing upon our soil.” Espinoza did not respond to requests for comment from the Observer.
For years, the Remembrance Project was relegated to fringes of the xenophobic far right, in part because Espinoza has aligned herself with leaders of white nationalist and nativist organizations.
But Espinoza’s cause found a mainstream vessel in Donald Trump, whose presidential campaign was built in large part around the narrative that violent criminals are illegally swarming into the country and killing innocent civilians. He quickly became a champion of the Angel Moms, who spoke at the Republican National Convention and were featured at several of his campaign rallies. He even attended a fundraiser for the Remembrance Project in Houston two months before Election Day.
Steve Bannon, the nationalist operative responsible for channeling Trump’s nativist impulses into a political ideology, promoted Espinoza’s work while he was editor of Breitbart. At a Remembrance Project luncheon in 2017, Bannon said that putting faces to the stories of those victimized by “illegal aliens” was the “key that picked the lock” for Trump’s upset victory.
Espinoza’s national influence has only grown since Trump became president. Shortly after entering office, he signed an executive order outlining his plan to create a new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office called VOICE, or Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, that would keep victims’ families apprised of undocumented offenders’ criminal or deportation proceedings. “We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests,” Trump said in his first address to Congress.
Espinoza had long called for a VOICE office. After Trump’s election, she moved the Remembrance Project’s headquarters to Washington, D.C., a move that, as Breitbart wrote, “institutionalizes the populist, nationalist, America-First movement in the heart of D.C.”
There is no evidence that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a greater rate than any other population in the country. In fact, studies have shown that they are less likely to commit crimes than citizens. However, Espinoza and her allies claim that lawmakers don’t want American citizens to know the full scope of the “illegal alien” crime wave because they are beholden to “pro-amnesty donors” addicted to cheap labor.
Some former supporters have soured on Espinoza, who they believe has become a shameless self-promoter focused more on advancing her own political career (she ran a failed bid for Congress in 2016) than helping victims’ families.
“We were used, abused and exploited,” an Angel Mom recruited by Espinoza told Politico in 2017.