In 2013, Marco Saavedra engaged in what he called an act of “self deportation” when he deliberately returned to his native Mexico, despite being an undocumented immigrant, in order to call attention to young undocumented people like himself who didn’t have full rights despite growing up in the U.S.
On Thursday, the Bronx activist and his attorney told a New York immigration judge that despite this one voluntary return to Mexico, it would be too dangerous for the government to deport Saavedra back to Mexico.
This asylum argument is based on the very reason why Saavedra went to Mexico six years ago. Attorney Bryan Johnson said Saavedra had a well-founded fear of future persecution because of his history of activism.
“There aren’t many people like Marco who have such strong convictions and are willing to walk the walk, and take action that puts themselves at risk for human rights and immigrant rights,” Johnson said.
Saavedra is from Oaxaca and came to New York with family when he was three. During his testimony on Thursday, the 29 year-old Saavedra described living in fear of deportation until a political awakening in college, when he began fighting for the DREAM Act to protect undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
He was arrested for civil disobedience in North Carolina, and in 2012 he deliberately got himself detained inside a Florida Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in order to help immigrants inside connect with attorneys. By then, President Obama had enacted DACA for undocumented young people because the DREAM Act didn’t pass Congress. But Saavedra chose not to apply.
“I can’t be the beneficiary of freedoms that aren’t extended to my community,” he told immigration judge Sam Factor, as he revisited his history of activism.
This was why he said he went to Mexico. Saavedra met up with other undocumented “dreamers” who had been deported, or gone back under other circumstances, to protest. Saavedra knew northern Mexico was dangerous because of its drug cartels. Upon going there in person, he said, “I felt that all the stories and articles I had read were real.” He described riding a bulletproof chartered bus, and staying with activists in a shelter to avoid drawing any attention before their protest.
After they marched in caps and gowns and got detained at the border in 2013, Saavedra and other members of this Dream Nine group all passed credible fear interviews and were allowed back into the U.S. to pursue asylum. He’s been waiting for his asylum trial ever since.
When asked by his attorney if he could live a peaceful life in Mexico if he were deported, Saavedra acknowledged he could. But he said, “I just don’t believe in peace for myself if that doesn’t exist for everyone.”
If deported, he said he would work with a group in Oaxaca to help migrants from Central America as they cross into Mexico--and whose leader has been threatened. He said this would put him at risk because organized crime preys on migrants and he’d be seen as interfering.
A government attorney, Ilijana Markisich, was skeptical of this account as she cross-examined Saavedra. She noted that those who have been threatened or killed for human rights work in Mexico have been journalists, teachers and environmental activists. She asked if he’d ever done any activism in those fields. Saavedra replied that he’s organized for environmental justice in the Bronx, where he now works at his family’s restaurant.
Markisich also asked if his family in Mexico had ever been persecuted for being indigenous, and he said not to his knowledge.
Johnson noted that his client doesn’t need to prove that he’s been persecuted in the past to win asylum, but instead that he would be in the future.
Two expert witnesses testified on the dangers political activists face in Mexico. Deborah Poole, an anthropologist who has researched impunity and corruption in Mexico, and teacher rebellions in Oaxaca, said Saavedra would risk threats, kipdnapping, torture or disappearance if he “exposed corruption.”
Rev. Elizabeth Maxwell, of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Manhattan, testified that she knows Saavedra and that he’s likely to continue his activism because of his strong religious faith. CUNY anthropologist Alyshia Gálvez testified that she’s worked with many undocumented activists while advising students, and described Saavedra as having a “level of selflessness that is simply astonishing.”
If deported to Mexico, she predicted he would continue working for immigrant rights despite the dangers. “For him not to continue doing that would be a kind of social death,” she said.
The small immigration courtroom was packed with more than a dozen supporters, and many others waited out in the hallway during the five-and-a-half hour hearing.
Judge Factor did not issue a decision Thursday. He asked both parties to submit closing arguments in writing in January.
Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering courts and legal affairs at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.