As he built support for his signature political issue, Donald Trump formed a powerful partnership with a nonprofit group dedicated to families of those killed by undocumented immigrants, but now some of those families are alleging they were exploited by both the nonprofit group and — to a lesser extent — by President Trump.
More than a dozen families involved in the Houston-based Remembrance Project — including two who spoke at the Republican National Convention and several more who spoke at Trump’s rallies or were featured in his campaign ads — have parted ways with the organization, according to people familiar with the situation, including six of the families.
Several of the families say they feel let down partly because the charity has done nothing to help them financially, despite suggesting that the money it raised — including $52,000 or more raised with Trump’s help — would be used to assist victims’ families. A handful of the families are planning a new group through which they intend to provide such assistance. Several others have demanded that the Remembrance Project refrain from using their names and likenesses — as well as those of their deceased loved ones — in its marketing materials, and some discussed legal action to force the group to comply.
“We were used, abused and exploited, and what’s worse is that my son was used, abused and exploited and is still being used, abused and exploited,” said Brenda Sparks, a former Remembrance Project participant whose son Eric Zepeda died in September 2011 at age 22 after being struck while riding his motorcycle by a car driven by an undocumented immigrant.
“Trump used the Remembrance Project to get to us, and the Remembrance Project also used him,” said Sparks, who was among the so-called Angel Moms who Trump brought on stage at rallies and speeches to tell their stories, including at the August 2016 speech at which he laid out his hard-line immigration plan.
Trump himself was the key attraction at a Houston fundraiser for the Remembrance Project less than two months before Election Day. Taking time away from his high-octane campaign rallies, the then-Republican nominee spoke at a luncheon in Houston featuring about 40 people who had lost loved ones to crimes by undocumented immigrants.
The Remembrance Project sold tickets to the event for as much as $10,000 per table, claiming in promotional materials — some featuring video of Trump at a rally calling the group “incredible” — that proceeds would “sponsor a stolen life,” and thanking donors for “support and contributions made that assists an #AngelFamily.”
“Nothing has moved me more deeply than the time I’ve spent with the families of the Remembrance Project,” Trump said when he took the stage that afternoon.
Families affiliated with the Remembrance Project say they’ve not received any direct help from the group, despite several requests, and the group’s leader says that was never the intention.
In interviews, Sparks and several other family members also expressed frustration that Trump has reversed himself on a pledge to repeal an executive order signed by former President Barack Obama deferring deportation proceedings for immigrants who entered the country illegally as children.
But Sparks and several other victims’ family members who have spent time privately with Trump say they are holding out hope that he’ll revert to his previous position. And they also say they believe that his attraction to their cause — which became an animating theme of his campaign and later his presidency — was less about politics and more about genuine concern for them, and the country writ large.
They are less convinced about the motivations of the woman who co-founded the Remembrance Project, Maria Espinoza. The family members of six victims and three allies who’ve turned away from the group describe Espinoza as an over-promiser who used them to get close to Trump, and to boost her own profile and influence.
“As Trump became more popular, she started wanting more of a public presence,” said Maureen Maloney, a Massachusetts woman whose son Matthew Denice was killed in a 2011 accident when his motorcycle was struck by a car driven by a native of Ecuador who was drunk at the time.
Maloney connected with the Trump campaign through the Remembrance Project and joined Trump onstage during his August immigration policy speech to share the story of her son. She subsequently parted ways with Espinoza, explaining to POLITICO: “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. It started to feel like this might be a steppingstone for her.”
Espinoza says she is eying a 2018 run for a Houston congressional seat after losing a 2016 GOP primary for the seat, despite receiving boosterish coverage from the pro-Trump Breitbart News and Steve Bannon, who was then serving as the site’s executive chairman. In a December 2015 segment on Breitbart News’ radio show, Bannon, who is now Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, expressed support for Espinoza’s campaign, asserting “we’re going to have your back,” while also praising the Remembrance Project as “an amazing organization.”
The role of the Remembrance Project in Trump’s campaign highlights the increasing political involvement of nonprofit groups, despite weakly enforced regulations intended to limit their political activity. For instance, the Remembrance Project indicated in its request for tax exemption to the Internal Revenue Service that it would “refrain from supporting or opposing candidates in political campaigns in any way,” nor would it “attempt to influence legislation.” And the scrutiny of the group comes as Trump is furthering easing enforcement of rules barring political activity by religious nonprofits registered under the same section of the tax code — 501(c)3 — as the Remembrance Project. It also sheds light on how Trump was able to quickly build support around his animating political issue.
The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment.
Espinoza, 54, says the Remembrance Project has complied with all applicable provisions of the tax code, and she rejects any suggestion that she’s using the group or her connections to Trump to further her own political career.
“My motives are to be able to save other lives from being stolen because of illegal immigration. That’s our mission,” she said, attributing complaints to “some sour grapes” from people who left her group to start their own ventures.
Espinoza, who points out that her father immigrated to the U.S. legally, hasn’t lost a family member to crime by immigrants in the country illegally. Rather, she said she decided to start the Remembrance Project in 2009 with her husband, Tim Lyng, after becoming disturbed by the killings of several Houston police officers by undocumented immigrants.
She and Lyng, a civil engineer, in late 2010 filed paperwork in Texas to incorporate the Remembrance Project. It was the second charity they’d formed in Texas; the first, The Joint Association to Stop Spina Bifida Corp., appears to have been mothballed after minimal activity. The Remembrance Project’s purpose, according to the Texas filing, would be “to help those persons who have lost loved ones from illegal activities of other (sic) create a remembrance to honor the life lost and to help in the healing process.”
The group didn’t attract much attention at first, as Espinoza initially devoted her energies to traveling the country with what she called the “Stolen Lives Quilt” — a banner featuring the names and photographs of victims of crimes perpetrated by people in the country illegally.
But around 2013, national Republicans began awakening to the rhetorical impact of having the victims’ families lobby against proposed reforms to federal immigration laws that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for many of the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. Espinoza and the Remembrance Project families found themselves in high demand at Capitol Hill hearings and news conferences, on television and in congressional town halls.
In June 2013, Espinoza and her quilt were featured at a Capitol Hill news conference organized by the Tea Party Patriots with GOP lawmakers including then-Sen. Jeff Sessions to oppose a so-called amnesty bill. Around that time, the Tea Party Patriots’ tax filings show that the group donated $7,500 to the Remembrance Project, which appears to be the first grant it received from a well-known conservative nonprofit group.
The Remembrance Project also started attracting notice on the anti-immigrant right. It garnered a flattering cover story in the fall 2013 issue of The Social Contract, a journal of the nativist foundation US Inc. That group donated a combined $57,500 in 2014 and 2015 to the Remembrance Project, according to US Inc.’s tax filings. The group in 2016 made “a modest grant” to the Remembrance Project to support the Houston conference at which Trump spoke, according to US Inc.’s president, K.C. McAlpin, who personally donated $1,000 to Espinoza’s 2016 congressional committee (making him one of the biggest donors to the cash-strapped campaign).
US Inc. is run partly by John Tanton, whom the Anti-Defamation League describes as “the primary architect of the modern day anti-immigrant movement.” He once wrote that “for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”
Espinoza, asked about Tanton’s quote, said “I don’t know what he meant by that” and asserted she is not anti-immigrant, but, rather, opposed to illegal immigration.
Nonetheless, Trump thrust anti-immigrant rhetoric into the spotlight from the moment he announced his presidential campaign with a June 2015 speech in which he charged that Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists,” adding that “some, I assume, are good people.”
The response to the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric was condemnation from much of the political class on both sides of the aisle.
But it was music to the ears of Espinoza and the Remembrance Project families.
Three weeks after his announcement speech, Trump met privately with Espinoza, Sparks and several of the families at a Los Angeles hotel. Then Trump and the families participated in a news conference at which the families shared the stories of their tragedies and praised Trump, all while holding the Stolen Lives Quilt for the cameras and wearing Remembrance Project T-shirts emblazoned with images of their deceased loved ones.
The scene, arranged largely by Espinoza, repeated itself at Trump rallies and speeches across the country over the next 16 months, as Espinoza built ties to the Trump campaign staff, while the candidate himself came to know many of the families personally.
“I felt it in my heart that Mr. Trump was sincere,” said Angie Morfin-Vargas, who appeared at Trump rallies to highlight the story of her 13-year-old son Ruben, who was fatally shot by an undocumented immigrant in 1990. When Trump saw her holding her son’s quilt at a rally, he asked her “Is that your boy?” Morfin-Vargas recalled. “I said yes, and he said he was sorry, but don’t worry everything was going to be OK. He grabbed my son’s quilt, and he gave it a kiss and he signed it. To me, seeing my baby and Mr. Trump on stage, I was just so touched, and it made me feel like my baby didn’t die in vain.”
But several family members said they chafed under Espinoza’s demands that they wear their Remembrance Project shirts and praise the group in every appearance.
By the time she attended the Houston conference, Morfin-Vargas said, “I sort of felt like we were just a dog and pony show on stage for all the people in the audience who were donors, and who weren’t victims.”
Internal Remembrance Project records reviewed by POLITICO show that the group sold at least $52,000 worth of tickets at the Houston fundraiser. That haul — even without any contributions from nonprofits like US Inc. — likely will require the group to file a comprehensive tax return for 2016 that will be publicly available and could offer a fuller view into the group’s finances than has been previously available. In past years, the group has informed the IRS that it raised less than $50,000, allowing it to file records that aren’t subject to public disclosure.
Several victims’ families and Remembrance Project donors said that Espinoza left the unmistakable impression that the money raised by the group in Houston and generally would be spent at least in part to help the families with legal assistance, counseling and medical treatment, and other costs associated with their tragedies.
“Maria would always find the right words to keep me hanging on with the hope for some help that never came,” said one family member, who said she asked Espinoza for assistance through the Remembrance Project. The family member, who did not want to be identified, added that Espinoza ultimately recommended that Remembrance Project participants create a GoFundMe page to help another family dealing with medical costs associated with a crime perpetrated by an undocumented immigrant.
Texas Republican activist Kathleen Lieberman — who attended the luncheon with 10 associates who paid $125 each for tickets — said “we believed that the money after the dinner was going to help the families, and I was very disappointed to find out that it didn’t.”
McAlpin, of US Inc., said his group supports the Remembrance Project because it brings together the victims’ families and “commemorates their loved ones in a variety of ways to let the families know they have not been forgotten” — not because it promises direct financial support.
But, he added, “there could be circumstances, such as not having the money to pay for a decent funeral, where the answers would be yes. Those decisions would be up to Maria and Tim.”
Espinoza told POLITICO that her group paid for the families’ travel to the Houston conference — including airfare, lodging and several meals — with money fronted by her husband, whom she said she has yet to pay back. But she insisted she never told donors or family members that the Remembrance Project would help defray the costs of medical, legal or counseling bills for the families.
“We do not do that,” she said. She did, however, suggest that the group is considering broadening its mission to provide direct support as it raises more money. “We’re going to roll out a couple new … initiatives and collaborations that are so needed, and I think it will help the families directly, because we certainly don’t have the funding to do that. I wish we did.”
Since Trump’s upset victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, Espinoza has moved quickly to solidify her connections to the new administration, and to use them to try to advance the cause.
In the weeks after Election Day, the group’s representatives met six times with “top-level administration officials in the departments of Homeland Security and Justice” about a plan for a new program within the Department of Homeland Security to assist the families and victims of crimes perpetrated by undocumented immigrants, according to a USA Today op-ed her husband, Lyng, wrote.
Espinoza did not respond to a question about whether those meetings, which included one with then-Attorney General nominee Sessions, constituted lobbying of the sort that the Remembrance Project told the IRS it would refrain from doing. Instead, she responded in an email “Obviously, your goal is to stifle the voices of families whose loved ones were killed by illegal aliens, and to attempt to stop the only organization that shines a bright light on these tragedies.”
Five days after Trump’s inauguration, Espinoza and two Angel Moms stood proudly with Vice President Mike Pence and DHS Secretary John Kelly behind Trump at Homeland Security’s Washington headquarters as the newly sworn-in president signed a pair of executive orders related to undocumented immigration. One of the orders directed the agency to create the new victims program, which would become known as the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office.
In a speech to DHS employees immediately following the signing, Trump singled out several of the families, telling their stories and adding, “I want to thank the Remembrance Project — such incredible people — for giving these families a voice. … First these families lost their loved ones, then they endured a system that ignored them, while at the same time, constantly rewarding those who broke the law. For these families, it’s been one injustice after another. But that all turns around beginning today.”
The Remembrance Project did a bit of a victory lap.
Lyng boasted on Facebook that Espinoza “conceived of” VOICE and “hatched this groundbreaking concept” by writing open letters to governors and presidential candidates, including Trump, asking them to assess taxes on the money immigrants send back home and to use that money to reimburse victims and their families for burial costs, medical and legal expenses, child care, unemployment assistance and other services. (The VOICE office does not include plans to make available any direct assistance.) And Lyng took it even further, asserting that the involvement of the Remembrance Project and its families “help[ed] turn the tide of both the primary and general elections for now President Donald J. Trump!”
In March, Espinoza announced that the Remembrance Project would be opening a Washington headquarters “to support Donald Trump’s VOICE program,” according to a Breitbart News post unveiling the plan. Espinoza told the website that her group has the enthusiastic backing of the Trump administration.
Then, in April, Lyng filed paperwork in Texas to form a more politically oriented arm of the group. He referred to The Remembrance Project Advocacy Incorporated as a “social welfare nonprofit,” suggesting it’s registered under a section of the tax code — 501(c)4 — that would allow it to directly support or oppose candidates and to lobby for legislation.
“We want to be able to support good candidates,” Espinoza explained. “There are so many families that need help, we just can’t keep up with it. And it looks like these politicians are blocking any funding going to the families that need it most.”
Brent Griffiths contributed to this report.