The Remembrance Project was founded by Texas couple Maria Espinoza and Tim Lyng in 2009. Espinoza was active on the conservative circuit in her native Houston, serving as president of the Houston chapter of the Eagle Forum, a right-wing group founded by Phyllis Schlafly, widely considered to be the matriarch of the modern conservative movement.
In its own words
"[T]he racism perpetrated by illegal invaders upon Americans of all ethnic backgrounds is real."
—Maria Espinoza in the Texas Eagle Forum Newsletter, "The Torch" October 2012
"We have uncovered the fact that Americans are under assault, a fact under-reported by the press, and unconnected by our elected leaders at all levels of government. Sanctuary cities, unsecured communities, human trafficking, molestations of our children, are all part of the vernacular of this disease that illegal immigration speaks, and must be addressed now!"
—Maria Espinoza, The Social Contract, Fall 2012 issue
"Child molestation and rape are very numerous in this illegal alien demographic!"
—Maria Espinoza on Facebook, March 2014
Maria Espinoza was active on the conservative circuit in her native Houston, serving as president of the Houston chapter of the Eagle Forum, a right-wing group founded by Phyllis Schlafly, widely considered to be the matriarch of the modern conservative movement. Anti-immigrant animus is certainly a key Eagle Forum pillar, but according to an interview with Buzzfeed Espinoza pointed to a series of deaths of Houston police officers at the hands of undocumented immigrants as her reason for starting the group.
According to Buzzfeed, Espinoza, “made a full-time occupation out of tracking down crime victims, offering to advocate on their behalf, attending murder trials to show them her support, and eventually bringing them along on her travels.” The tagline of the Remembrance Project, as defined by its Facebook page is, “Educating and raising awareness about the epidemic of killing of Americans by illegal aliens – individuals who should not have been in the U.S. in the first place.”
Soon Espinoza went from tracking down the families of victims to creating something much more visual: the “stolen lives” quilt. The quilt is made up of a number of banners with pictures of Americans killed by undocumented immigrants. For Espinoza, this visual has been very effective in her quest to use these tragedies to push for nativist immigration policies. The first quilt debuted in Houston at a May Day event on May 1, 2011.
In 2011 the Project’s website stated, “We seek your help to bring to the forefront the tragic loss of American lives caused by the continued open border policies of past and current federal bureaucracies; policies such as sanctuary city policies which perpetuate killings of Americans by invaders.” Language like this — depicting undocumented immigrants as invaders — caught the eye of the organized anti-immigrant movement in the United States.
In 2011, Espinoza spoke at a Tea Party event in Austin, Texas, which encouraged lawmakers to introduce an omnibus anti-immigrant bill similar to those in Arizona and Alabama. Another speaker at the event, Rebecca Forest told the crowd:
“If you want to know why we can't pass legislation in Texas it's because we have 37, no 36, Hispanics in the Legislature. All of the states that have passed legislation have a handful, and I mean literally, some of them have no Hispanic legislators, well, maybe three or five or something. So that's, umm, part of our problem and we need to change those numbers. We need to do something about that.”
In the comment section of a blog post documenting Forest’s comment, a person posting under the name “Maria Espinoza” defended Forest, writing, “I attended and spoke at this event. I am Hispanic, and I would know racism. Rebecca is nothing of this sort. It is unfortunate that people like Mr. Price, who have a ‘hate agenda’ to put out such ugliness.”
Joining the anti-immigrant movement
Espinoza’s first brush with the organized movement was with some of its hardcore elements.
In 2012, Espinoza penned a piece in the racist journal The Social Contract (TSC), published by white nationalist John Tanton. Tanton is the founder of the modern anti-immigrant movement who once wrote, "I've come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that."
Espinoza’s piece focused on a key nativist trope — depicting immigrants as criminals — that also serves as the animating idea behind the Remembrance Project. “No one is immune to the illegal who drives wildly drunk, or the wanna-be gang-banger who needs to machete innocent citizens to gain entry and respect into the Latino or other gangs,” Espinoza wrote.
“We have uncovered the fact that Americans are under assault, a fact under-reported by the press, and unconnected by our elected leaders at all levels of government. Sanctuary cities, unsecured communities, human trafficking, molestations of our children, are all part of the vernacular of this disease that illegal immigration speaks and must be addressed now!”
In 2013, Espinoza appeared on the front cover of TSC holding a “stolen lives” quilt with Wayne Lutton, an open white nationalist, who serves as TSC’s editor. Lutton was on the editorial advisory board of the Citizens Informer, published by the white nationalist group Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), which Charleston shooter Dylan Roof credited with being his gateway into white nationalism.
Also in 2013, Espinoza was a guest speaker at The Social Contract Press Writers Workshop in Washington, D.C., an annual event that attracts white nationalists, elected officials and anti-immigrant activists. While introducing Espinoza, white nationalist K.C. McAlpin, president of U.S., Inc. — the umbrella organization that houses The Social Contract Press and a close associate of Tanton’s — stated, “Like I said, I can’t remember when I first became aware of the Remembrance Project, and Maria, but I remember thinking when I did, what a terribly needed and worthwhile organization.” McAlpin went on to echo Espinoza’s words from the Project’s website staying, “To lose a loved one but especially a child to death because our own government refuses to carry out its fundamental duty to protect us from invasion by criminal lawbreakers is the most devastating loss that I can imagine.”
A year later, the Remembrance Project received a $25,000 grant from Tanton’s U.S., Inc. In 2015, Espinoza received an additional $32,500. Tanton’s group has funded hate groups in the past, including VDARE, a white nationalist website and hub for racists and antisemites who oppose non-white immigration to the United States.
By that time Espinoza was traveling across the country to speak at anti-immigrant gatherings. In January 2014, she spoke at a Tea Party event in Florida promoted by Floridians for Immigration Enforcement (FLIMEN). In May, she traveled to Oregon to speak at a meeting organized by the anti-immigrant hate group Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OFIR). She also patrolled the border with the nativist extremist group Texas Border Volunteers and recounted her experiences at the Writers Workshop gathering. In 2015, she again addressed the Writers Workshop gathering.
Espinoza’s social media activity during this time revealed deeper anti-immigrant animus. When a student group at the University of Texas caught flack in November of 2013 for attempting to organize a “Catch an Illegal Alien Day,” Espinoza praised the group, writing on her Facebook page, “Support these kids by liking and sharing their page!” Four months later, Espinoza posted a story about an alleged sex crime committed by an undocumented immigrant before writing, “Child molestation and rape are very numerous in this illegal alien demographic!” In a December 2013 blog post on the Remembrance Project website, Espinoza linked to the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, which aptly takes its name from the gutter Nazi propaganda sheet known as Der Stürmer. The title of the cross-posted piece was, “Family Furious as Illegal Alien Let Out of Jail to Kill White People.”
Espinoza has attended the Hold Their Feet to the Fire (HTFTTF) conferences organized by another Tanton-founded group the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). The HTFTTF events attract dozens of right-wing radio hosts who participate in FAIR’s two-day “Radio Row” where they interview anti-immigrant activists and politicians in an attempt to flood the airways with nativist content and pressure policymakers.
In 2013, Espinoza announced the first annual “National Day of Remembrance for Victims Killed by Illegal Aliens.” On her website Espinoza listed a number of “state directors” who were charged with organizing local events on that day with Stolen Lives Quits featuring Americans killed by undocumented immigrants.
Many of coordinators listed by the Project are longtime leaders of anti-immigrant hate groups, including:
- Cynthia Kendoll: president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform. Like Espinoza, Kendoll has spoken at the Writers Workshop and is a regular at FAIR’s HTFTTF. OFIR has also received funding from Tanton’s U.S., Inc. OFIR’s vice president Richard LaMountain has contributed to VDARE as well as the nativist publication Middle American News. In 2007, LaMountain went a step further, writing a letter to the antisemitic publication American Free Press (AFP). The letter, published in AFP’s May 2007 issue, decried the settling of Iraqi refugees to the United States, warning they “will resist assimilation to American society” before claiming some “may even be inclined toward anti-American armed attacks.”
- D.A. King: founder of the anti-immigrant hate group Dustin Inman Society (DIS). King has contributed articles to VDARE and The Social Contract. He has also participated in Tanton’s Writers Workshop and received funding from U.S., Inc. In a 2011 comment on the DIS website, King wrote, “Let me make this crystal clear: Dr. John Tanton is a long-time respected personal friend and hero.” Throughout 2017, King’s social media accounts repeatedly promoted blatant, anti-Muslim rhetoric, including linking to stories with titles like, “The beautiful Italy is rapidly being Islamised.”
- Tamyra Murray: leader of the anti-immigrant hate group Michiganders for Immigration Control and Enforcement (MICE). Murray’s personal business card notes she is tied to FAIR and U.S., Inc. In a 2017 piece for The Social Contract, Murray wrote, “Michigan’s reputation is fast becoming stigmatized by clashes of culture, clashes of religions, offensive practices (such as female genital mutilation), a push toward Sharia compliance, and questionable food and health safety standards. Should those practices be precursors of non-assimilation?”
Fostering connections with elected officials
In 2012, Espinoza took the Stolen Lives Quilt on a tour and visited a total of 21 state offices across the country.
Espinoza’s staunchest supporter at the federal level is Iowa Rep. Steve King. One of the most outspoken anti-immigrant members of Congress, King introduced a resolution in 2011 that would recognize the National Day of Remembrance. Espinoza and King have hobnobbed at FAIR’s HTFTTF in the past and both participated in a “Tea Party Town Hall” in Richmond, Virginia, in 2013. At that event Roy Beck of the anti-immigrant group, NumbersUSA introduced Espinoza, who spoke at length about how “illegal immigration is destroying our families.”
Espinoza repeatedly uses a bogus statistic during her speeches, claiming that, “25 Americans or legal residents die each day at the hands of illegal aliens.” The origins of this come from Steve King, who since 2006 has claimed that “murderous illegal aliens” kill 12 U.S. citizens every day, while another 13 a day are left dead by “uninsured drunk driving illegals.”
According to the Texas Freedom Network, in 2012 Espinoza published the claim in The Torch, a monthly newsletter published by the Texas Eagle Forum. In the same issue, she wrote that “the racism perpetrated by illegal invaders upon Americans of all ethnic backgrounds is real.”
In 2013, Espinoza participated in a press conference organized by the anti-immigrant group Tea Party Patriots featuring then Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, another staunch ally of the nativist movement, and Utah Senator Mike Lee. At the press conference, organized in opposition to the “Gang of Eight” comprehensive immigration reform proposal, Espinoza again depicted immigrants as criminals, stating, “Its authors worked hand in hand with rich businessmen and amnesty advocates while never once considering the rights of the victims of illegal alien violence. Their decisions to provide amnesty to criminals including gang members is a slap in the face to every single victim of illegal alien violence.”
In 2014, Espinoza, along with the Beltway “Big Three” anti-immigrant groups — FAIR, the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA — was invited to participate in a meeting with then Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.
While the Project is not permitted to endorse candidates due to its non-profit status, Espinoza developed a strong relationship with white nationalist political candidate Paul Nehlen. In July of 2016, Espinoza helped organize a protest outside of Republican Paul Ryan’s house, Nehlen’s opponent and Nehlen spoke at the Remembrance Project’s 2017 conference. Nehlen voiced increasingly open white nationalist and antisemitic rhetoric in early 2018.
The face of the anti-sanctuary movement
Since its inception, the Remembrance Project has targeted so-called sanctuary cities in the United States, communities that have generally declined to task local law enforcement with enforcing federal immigration laws. In 2011, the Project’s website claimed sanctuary policies “perpetuate killings of Americans by invaders.”
In 2013, following the murder of a 93-year-old woman in Omaha, Nebraska, at the hands of a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant, Espinoza and Steve King attended a vigil organized by FAIR. According to an announcement on the FAIR website, “Protestors will demand an end to lax federal enforcement of immigration laws, as well as state and local sanctuary policies that shield illegal aliens from detection and removal.” FAIR’s field director Susan Tully told Breitbart News she hoped the vigil would “highlight Martinez-Perez (the alleged killer) as the poster child of both the DREAM Act and amnesty.”
In 2015, Espinoza and the debate over sanctuary cities made national news following the shooting death of Kathryn Steinle, later ruled accidental, by an undocumented immigrant with multiple prior deportations. The anti-immigrant movement seized upon the Steinle death to push for an end to sanctuary cities. The Remembrance Project started a petition calling for a boycott of San Francisco. Where Steinle was shot. The petition read, “Send a message that San Francisco's economy [sic] will suffer when its leadership continues to place illegal aliens before the safety of citizen.”
The petition drew 500 signatures. In July, Espinoza broke the boycott to travel to the city for a press event with other anti-immigrant activists including Robin Hvidston, a former Minuteman Project coordinator. Espinoza donned a bulletproof vest for the event. According to a press release, Espinoza asked the public “to unite with families and call for an end to Santuary [sic] City Policies in their cities.” White nationalist Rick Oltman also attended the event and was photographed with Hvidston. Oltman was employed by FAIR and has been a speaker at several events put on by the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens.
Anti-immigrant groups and elected officials soon began pushing for “Kate’s Law,” which has now become synonymous with the anti-sanctuary movement, despite the fact that the actual bill language has nothing to do with those polices. Instead it would tack on harsher penalties for those who reenter the country after being deported. Kate’s Law was introduced in conjunction with an anti-sanctuary bill. Both passed the House in 2015 but failed in the Senate. Steinle’s father testified in favor of Kate’s Law in the House, but also told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2015 that his family did not have a stance against sanctuary city policies. In 2017, he asked that his daughter’s name not be used in debates over immigration policy.
Riding the Trump wave
From the beginning, Donald Trump’s campaign focused on demonizing immigrants, especially those from Mexico. The anti-immigrant movement not only approved of Trump’s message but also began working closely with the Trump campaign. The most visible example of this was Trump’s embrace of Espinoza and her Project.
During campaign events in California, Trump began using the names of Kate Steinle and Jamiel Shaw, a teenager who was killed by an undocumented immigrant, when he discussed his immigration policies. Eventually, Angel Moms, a group composed of mothers of those killed by undocumented immigrants, was invited to speak at Trump rallies as part of the opening act. In a meeting organized by the Remembrance Project in September of 2015, Trump met with three families of children killed by undocumented immigrants. When asked about the meeting, Espinoza told CNN, "He's very concerned about what's taking place, as you know. You can see that his feelings are very genuine and caring for what's taking place to our American families." Shaw’s father was invited to speak at a Trump event a month earlier in Arizona.
In April and May of 2016, Trump invited Angel Moms to speak at rallies in California. Angel Moms also made a speaking appearance at the GOP Convention in Cleveland in July. In September, Espinoza held the Remembrance Project’s first conference in her native Houston where Trump addressed a private luncheon. As reported by Jonathan Blitzer of The New Yorker, Kris Kobach of the anti-immigrant hate group Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), delivered the opening remarks, lambasting sanctuary cities calling them “one of the most outrageous and dangerous problems in America today,” before drawing the line between immigrants and crime, stating, “It’s not just about crime; it’s also terrorism.” Espinoza then introduced Trump, calling him the only candidate, “who reached out to our families, our stolen-lives families, America’s most forgotten families.”
The beginning of the Trump era
Trump’s presidential victory was also a major victory for the anti-immigrant movement and Espinoza in particular. In March of 2017, President Trump signed an executive order creating the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office. The office was designed to provide "a voice to those who have been ignored by our media and silenced by special interests." The concept came directly from Espinoza who was present at the signing ceremony. During the campaign, Espinoza sent letters to four GOP candidates along with all 50 governors about creating the VOICE office. Espinoza told NBC news that only Trump responded.
A few days after Trump signed the VOICE executive order, Espinoza gave an exclusive interview to Breitbart to announce that the Project would be relocating to Washington, D.C., to support the program. “We felt it was imperative to have a strong presence in our nation’s Capitol, in order to rectify these terrible injustices. Our families are being heard from a higher vantage point thanks to Donald Trump, and we plan to continue educating and raising awareness here in Washington,” Espinoza told Breitbart.
But things weren’t as rosy as they seemed at the beginning of the year, largely due to the fallout from a piece on the Remembrance Project published by Politico in early June of 2017. In it, reporter Kenneth Vogel interviewed a number of victims' families who had left the organization, claiming Espinoza was only using them to boost her public profile.
The Politico piece also reported that at the Remembrance Project’s inaugural conference in 2016 where then-candidate Trump spoke, tables cost upward of $10,000. But according to the article, none of the money raised that day made its way to the victims’ families. Former Remembrance Project member Maureen Maloney spoke to Politico for the piece. Her son was killed by an undocumented Ecuadorean man, who had been driving while intoxicated and later was convicted of manslaughter.
“The more involved I got, once I got past my son’s trial and could focus more on the organization, it just seemed like my values and my goals were different than what Maria’s were," she explained. "It started to feel like this might be a steppingstone for her.”
In an apparent attempt to save face and avoid a large exodus from the organization, On June 22 of 2017, the Remembrance Project announced what Espinoza called a “groundbreaking victims’ support initiative,” in which the group would partner with CAREforce.us and The Counseling Team International to provide counseling for the families of victims killed by undocumented immigrants.
The next day, however, Rep. Steve King was at the launch of what appeared to be a splinter group, Advocates for Victims of Illegal Alien Crime (AVIAC).
AVIAC’s mission statement is very similar to that of the Remembrance Project, but uses milder language. Though there was no mention of the Remembrance Project at the AVIAC event, a least one woman who defected from the group, Maureen Maloney, spoke at the AVIAC launch.
Both AVIAC members and Espinoza were in Washington, D.C., for the July 2017 Hold Their Feet to the Fire. In one radio interview, Espinoza was mum on the AVIAC creation, choosing instead to announce that the Remembrance Project would be hosting another conference in the fall.
At that Remembrance Project conference, Espinoza welcomed a number of white nationalists. As reported by the Center for New Community, Rick Oltman attended the event, as did Marcus Epstein, a white nationalist and friend of Richard Spencer. In 2009, Epstein pleaded guilty to drunkenly assaulting a black woman in D.C. while racially abusing her. Kobach spoke at the gathering along with Stephen K. Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News and the disgraced Trump advisor.
The early months of 2018 saw a renewed effort by elected officials to strike a deal on an immigration package. The Remembrance Project, along with the rest of the anti-immigrant movement, has been very vocal, demanding that President Trump refuse to sign a bill that would provide status for DREAMers or DACA recipients. In a letter to Trump published on the Project’s website in early 2018, Espinoza told the President that Angel Moms are counting on him to stop what she called the “epidemic of killings” of Americans by undocumented immigrants.