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Maria Luna: ‘I want to help people, just like what America says it does.’

September 7, 2023 Perspective

In partnership with Survival Media Agency and the ICE Out of CA coalition, the Home, Not Heartbreak photo series captures the stories of Californians who have been affected directly by the state’s prison-to-ICE pipeline. This unequal system of justice has led to a statewide movement, driven by immigrant and refugee Californians, to reunite families and help more people build safe and thriving lives. While these community members represent just a sample of the thousands of California families and residents harmed by unjust ICE transfers each year, their stories and leadership capture the safety and community strength made possible when people can come home. Follow ICE Out of CA for updates and ways to take action.

“I’m just one of many who has changed their life and wants to give back,” says Maria Luna. “[Being deported] will break not only our family’s hearts, but everybody else’s as well as ours. A family is like a whole body…You need every bit of them, so that’s how I look at it. Young children need their parents, their grandparents, and they need their siblings, just like parents need their children.”

Maria reflected on the closeness of her family and her advocacy to protect herself and others from ICE deportation while standing outside Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. She began working there as a program coordinator helping people get their tattoos removed because they were former gang members or formerly incarcerated.

Maria wears a pink shirt and smiles in front of her place of work.

Maria Luna stands outside the main entrance of Homeboy Industries located in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles. (Apollo Victoria | Survival Media Agency)

She explains that “it’s so rewarding to work with them because when their tattoos are finally off, a lot of them feel like a whole different person. They come back and share that they got a job, that they are off of parole, or that they are a supervisor…Through my job here, I get to see that whole transformation and be a part of it. It’s so humbling and it brings joy to know that the transformation is real.”

Maria and staff members at the 2023 Homeboy Family Picnic

Maria and staff members at the 2023 Homeboy Family Picnic. Photo courtesy of Maria Luna

Now, Maria is a navigator retention specialist at Homeboy, mentoring young adults ages 18-24 in marginalized communities and helping them find employment, careers, and education opportunities. She’s also in college completing a degree in social justice. “I hope to use my degree to help young people who have been trafficked, supporting them to find shelter and safety.”

With ICE as a persistent threat, Maria is advocating for her pardon so she can continue her work in the community and be with her family.

Michael Madrilejo with API Rise, who is supporting Maria’s pardon application, shares: “In Maria’s new position, she now provides essential services such as housing or shelter, employment opportunities, and guidance to those in need. Her leadership qualities shine through as she tirelessly works to serve and empower the community.”

Maria Luna stands with fellow colleagues and community members at Homeboy Industries.

Staff and volunteer members of Homeboy Industries’ Tattoo Removal services. (Apollo Victoria | Survival Media Agency)

When Maria was three years old, she and her family immigrated from the Philippines as legal permanent residents. She grew up in San Francisco and remembers that “there’s chances here. That’s why a lot of families from different cultures migrated here. We were living in low-income housing. Unfortunately, some of us went to prison at a young age.” She coped with the struggles of being a teenager in these situations by engaging in unhealthy activities that led to her incarceration. Maria was sentenced as a young person and served 22 years on a life sentence after being granted parole under SB 261, a broadly-supported criminal justice reform for people who received convictions as youth.

While incarcerated, Maria became a certified counselor and worked as a peer mentor with other women. Recognizing all of her work on rehabilitation, Governor Brown approved her release in 2018, but the California prison system transferred Maria to ICE detention for seven months where she faced deportation to the Philippines.

Maria shares about the horrors of ICE detention: “There's no help unless you speak English and it was just horrible. People were signing off to get deported because they didn't understand what they were signing. Some people were just signing off because they felt like they were going to die in the conditions of the detention center. If you don't have a strong mind or a strong spiritual background, a place like that can break you. Literally break you.”

Eventually, through relentless community and legal advocacy, Maria was able to get out of ICE detention. She remembers, “the happiest moment I had is when I went to go visit my mom in December for Christmas. Being able to buy my mom all these Christmas gifts and spend time with her, and to be able to take her out to eat. To see my mom and my brother and my whole family, all reunited…And when meeting my new cousins, they’re like, ‘We heard of you, but my God, we missed you.” And then, ‘You’re my auntie. Oh my god. I love you.’ Just to feel that love with your family and knowing that you belong.”

Maria and her mother stop by Porto’s during her mother’s visit to LA.

Maria and her mother stop by Porto’s during her mother’s visit to LA. Photo courtesy of Maria Luna

As one of the handful of people who have been able to get out of ICE detention, Maria says that “I’m doing everything I can to give back to what I’ve taken. I work to honor everybody I have ever hurt by being the best that I can be and by remaining in service."

“I'm not scared to speak up. I want to help people, just like what America says it does. You stand up for people and then we're all equal. I think that's all we ask for.”

Last year, Maria spoke at a rally in Los Angeles calling on her elected representatives to protect all immigrants and refugees.

"Don't hand us off to ICE. Allow us to be here– not only with our families– but allow us to give back to the community like we said we would. Allow us to work, so we can take care of ourselves and our families, as well as the community.”

When people like Maria can come home, California communities are made stronger and safer. She shares with us,“I hope that I will get pardoned, and then I hope that this whole world will get better. I hope that there could be some kind of reform for humanity… My hope is to go back into the women's prison, and to help women through their addictions and show them how they could change. I hope that I am able to help give people who are being human trafficked some comfort, and some motivation to know that they can get past this. That their lives matter too.”

Maria Luna stands in a parking lot, smiling with her arms open. She is wearing a pink jersey shirt and black pants, and colorful sneakers.

Maria Luna in the parking lot at the end of the day working at Homeboy Industries (Apollo Victoria | Survival Media Agency)

ACTION: Email Gov. Newsom and Support Maria Luna’s Pardon Today

  • Go to Governor Newsom’s online portal
  • Select subject “Clemency - Pardon”
  • Select position “Pro”
  • Write your message:

    My name is _______ and I’m from _______ (organization or city/county where you live). I am reaching out in strong support of Maria Kanaka Luna, whose unwavering commitment to Los Angeles youth and immigrant communities is an inspiration to us all. Maria grew up in San Francisco after her family immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines when she was three years old. Maria and her family lived in neighborhoods with little access to resources. While incarcerated, Maria participated in conflict resolution programs and became a California Certified Drug and Alcohol Counselor. She earned release in recognition of this service and through SB 261, a broadly-supported criminal justice reform. Today, Maria works at Homeboy Industries, providing essential services to young people to help them find housing, safety, education, and jobs. Still, Maria is threatened with ICE deportation to the Philippines, a county she has no memory of. I urge Governor Newsom to pardon Maria immediately so she can continue to make a positive, uplifting impact on California.

Photos by Apollo Victoria and Hannah Benet of Survival Media Agency and courtesy of Maria Luna.