As an 8-year-old, Luis Mora, like a lot of kids, walked home from school every day. He would take the same path home — across a covered bridge, down a flight of stairs and along the road until he got to his home in Quito, Ecuador.
One afternoon, as he crossed the footbridge, a teenager walked up to him, held a gun to the second grader’s chest and demanded his cell phone. (Mora’s parents, who worked long hours, had given their son a phone so they could easily stay in touch with him throughout the day.)
“I saw my whole life — all the memories from past Christmases, from past birthdays,” says Mora. “But then, I saw images of the future and knew I would be okay, that I wouldn’t die that day.” He calmly handed over his phone and the few coins he had in his pocket.
Being able to remain calm in a crisis, says Mora, now a third-year political science major at UC Berkeley, is what helped him get through nearly three weeks of detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He was released Jan. 17 with the help of Berkeley’s Undocumented Student Program and an outpouring of support from campus advocacy groups and top state leaders.
Back on campus, Mora says that despite all of the anti-immigration rhetoric that continues to intensify with the Trump administration and the controversy that has surrounded his detainment and release, he feels stronger and more focused than ever.
“I believe everything happens for a reason,” he says. “My detainment has motivated me in a way to get my message out there — that this is what immigration really looks like. We’re just humans, like Americans, trying to achieve a better life. We all have dreams.”
Mora believes it’s his responsibility to help people understand that immigration isn’t going away — our country was built, and continues to function, because of immigrants.
After Mora was robbed at gunpoint a second time, when he was 10, his mother decided it was time to leave Ecuador. She wanted her only son to be able to grow up and pursue an education without the daily threat of violence. She also had cancer and knew she could get better treatment in the U.S. So she got two six-month visas and they moved to California, first to Los Angeles, then settling in San Diego.
Mora says his mother, a doctor and a missionary, taught him how to express himself in a way that encourages people to listen — not with anger, but with a kind of peaceful strength. It’s something that has inspired him to become an outspoken advocate for the undocumented community at UC Berkeley and across the nation.
Meng So, the director of the Undocumented Student Program, which serves the campus’s nearly 500 undocumented students, describes Mora as “a bottle of optimism and positive energy mixed with Red Bull.”
At 20 years old, Mora has an easy way about him. His gait is unhurried and his smile is wide. He seems undistracted, focused on the moment and conversation he’s having. He seems comfortable with who he is and has the air of a leader, someone who will stay true to himself no matter the hardship.
Undocumented immigrants like Mora, So says, learn from an early age that they have to find a kind of inner resilience to navigate through challenges of being on the outer margins of society. But he adds, in today’s political climate, resilience isn’t enough.
“Our students need other people to step up and to really push for immigration reform that upholds their dignity, their sense of being human and their sense of community,” Says So. “Immigration isn’t just an immigrant issue; it’s a human issue.”