Like many others who go through the prison system, Maria Luna hoped for a fresh start once she was released, and for a while it seemed as though she would get it.
Luna worked as a peer mentor during her lengthy time in prison, and had even become a state certified drug and alcohol counselor. She wanted to help her community and keep others from the kind of life that led to her own incarceration. After serving 22 years of a life sentence, the Board of Parole Hearings heard her case and found that she was suitable for release.
Unfortunately for Luna, she isn’t a citizen (she immigrated to the United States as a “permanent resident” from the Philippines), which meant ICE would be given the opportunity to pick her up for deportation upon her release. After being released last fall from the California Institution for Women in Southern California, Luna was transferred to the Adelanto Detention Facility in Southern California, where she is currently awaiting her bond hearing. Adelanto is owned and operated by GEO Group, Inc, a $1 billion private prison corporation that has a contract with ICE.
As a teenager growing up in San Francisco, Luna fell into bad crowds which eventually led to her involvement in a crime that landed her in prison. Luna, who is now 42, was born in the Philippines, but her family immigrated to the United States when she was three. Having spent almost her entire life in the United States, she has little knowledge and no real experience of what it is like to live in the Philippines.
Her situation is one that many undocumented immigrants fear in today’s hostile political climate.
President Trump’s biggest promise throughout his rise to power has been to construct a wall along the country’s southern border to prevent immigrants from illegally entering the country. This focus on Latino immigrants has largely overshadowed undocumented citizens from other countries.
“A lot of times Latinx folks take the spotlights just because of sheer numbers,” said Nate Tan, a member of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee. “But in some states like Hawaii, the largest undocumented population are Filipinos.”
Linda Luna, Maria’s mother, says her biggest concern is her daughter’s safety. “All of her siblings are over here. She would be completely alone…I would probably be able to see her for a few days, but I’m diabetic so I need to be close to my doctors,” she said. “When I went the Philippines to ask for support, it was only the church that was willing to provide support.”
However, even with this support, the government’s unforgiving attitude towards drugs and drug users would make still make it very dangerous for someone with Maria’s past.
Luna’s case is especially worrisome considering the current political climate in the Philippines. The Philippines current president, Rodrigo Duterte, has generated headlines across the globe for his genocidal stance on drugs. During a September 2016 press conference, Duterte unapologetically stated: “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews…there’s 3 million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
According to the Human Rights Watch website, Duterte’s “war on drugs” has resulted in the deaths of more than 12,000 people.
Because of Luna’s past struggles with illegal substances, deportation to a country with as severe a stance on drugs as the Philippines could be very dangerous. However, the judge who heard her case felt that her rehabilitation made it ok for her to be sent back to a country whose government has deputized citizens to kill any and all drug users, even those who are only suspected of using drugs.
Looking for help with her case, Luna contacted her friend in the Bay Area, Ny Nourn, who was named the 2018 Yuri Kochiyama Fellow at the Asian Law Caucus, a legal organization that assists low-income Asian Pacific American communities. The two had met while serving time Central California Women’s Facility where Nourn herself had been in a similar situation. Nourn was set to be released after serving 16 years, but faced being deported to Cambodia, despite spending all of her life in the United States.
Nourn wanted to assist Luna, but because the case is based in Southern California, the ALC was unable to take it on. So Nourn reached out to the immigration clinic at the University of Southern California, who agreed to take Luna’s case.
Linda Luna was extremely thankful for the help they’ve received from these various organizations. “Its remarkable to me. I had no idea how to get help,” she said. “So that was a wonderful gift from god that these agencies and other support groups are there helping me and my daughter for her case.”
At this point, Luna’s options are limited. She has requested for a bond hearing, which will happen in April. But even if it’s approved and she makes bail and is released from detention, she will not be immune to deportation. A pardon from the governor would expunge her record, making her no longer a priority for deportation, but it wouldn’t protect her from it eventually happening either. Still with continuous support from family, friends and various organizations has kept Maria hopeful and positive.
“It’s hard but there’s nothing I can do,” said Linda. “All I can do is pray and hope.”
If you would like to help Maria, you can donate to her GoFundMe page.
Story by: Hector Aguilar