Michael May's radio version of this story appeared on This American Life. The photos accompanying this story are drawn from the book by Steve Pavey and Marco Saavedra, Shadows Then Light, that chronicles the undocumented youth movement in words and pictures.
When Marco Saavedra was arrested for the first time, during a September 2011 protest against U.S. immigration policy in Charlotte, North Carolina, he thought he was prepared. It was what he’d come to do. Still, he was taking a risk. Saavedra is undocumented, and he was aware that the Charlotte police had an agreement with the federal government, under what’s known as the 287(g) program, that gave them the power to apprehend illegal immigrants and turn them over for deportation. Saavedra, who was then 21, had known dozens of undocumented activists who’d been arrested without being deported. But as he was sitting, handcuffed, in a gray-brick holding cell at the county jail, it was hard to suppress the fear. He’d felt it most of his life, since his parents brought him from rural Mexico to New York City when he was three; growing up, he’d done all he could to make sure that even his closest friends didn’t know his status.
“The euphoria of the protest, the chanting in the street, was gone,” he says. “It was lonely and desolate. They took us out one by one to process us. And one of the others came back with paperwork indicating they planned to send him to an immigration detention center in Georgia. I panicked for a moment.”
A few hours later, an official came in to announce that none of the ten protesters was going to be sent to detention. He didn’t give a reason, although the activists knew from prior experience that immigration officials rarely deported young immigrant activists, probably because they don’t want the bad publicity. But the moment of panic had jolted Saavedra, just like the terror he’d felt as a child when his father was pulled over by a cop. It put him back in touch with the threat of being pulled away from your life, suddenly, by immigration agents. Other people in the jail with him were in exactly that situation.
Saavedra is a “Dreamer,” part of the large movement of young undocumented activists demanding their rights. Over the next two nights, as he was held in a large pod in the jail, Saavedra began talking to the undocumented prisoners who were about to be transferred to the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. He wondered if some of the lessons he’d learned from his organizing could be used to help them. Another arrested protester, Mohammad Abdollahi, a brash organizer who’s always alert for an opportunity, had the same idea. Since 2009, Abdollahi had been leading campaigns to help get people out of detention. But in jail there was one big problem: “I couldn’t speak Spanish,” says Abdollahi, who is Iranian. “But I had experience helping people get out of detention. So Marco translated my advice. We’d tell them not to sign the voluntary deportation papers, because then there’s a chance to fight their case.”
The activists’ time in jail was supposed to be the end of this particular action, but it turned out to be just the beginning. Saavedra, who lives in New York, and Abdollahi, a Michigander, had come to Charlotte at the urging of their mutual friend and fellow activist, Viridiana Martinez. The three are leaders in a network of radical undocumented activists called the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, or NIYA. Martinez had also co-founded a local immigrant-rights group called the NC Dream Team, and she’d organized the rally a year ahead of the Democratic National Convention, which would come to Charlotte in 2012. They wanted to serve notice that young Latinos weren’t satisfied with President Obama’s record on immigration and that they weren’t going to be quiet about it. The protest was staged at Central Piedmont Community College because it had a policy of giving citizens first priority in choosing classes, making it difficult for undocumented students to get a spot in the more popular courses.
By midday on September 6, a crowd of around 300 had gathered. About a dozen Dreamers took turns at the microphone, wearing bright red shirts that said, “The Dream is Coming.” They publicly “outed” themselves as undocumented and told their life stories. Others spoke about the aggressive deportations under Obama’s watch—the administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than any administration before it—and decried the 287(g) program. Then they marched to a busy intersection near the campus, stood in the middle of the street, and chanted: “Undocumented! Unafraid!” Within minutes, traffic was backed up for blocks. It wasn’t long before the police vans arrived. As planned, seven activists—including Saavedra, Abdollahi, and Martinez—remained sitting in the road, volunteering to be arrested.
Most of the undocumented inmates Saavedra and Abdollahi talked to had been jailed for serious crimes, meaning they’d almost surely be deported. But then they met Javier de los Santos, who had been stopped for having a broken license-plate light. He had an infant son, a U.S. citizen. “He was soft-spoken and seemed worn down from work,” Saavedra says. “But he was honest, willing to talk, and open to the possibility of letting us fight his case.” He also had a DWI charge from years before, which made him a difficult—but not impossible—case.
In fact, de los Santos’s case was the beginning of a whole new style of activism—one that would, a year later, lead the three friends to pull off one of the boldest acts of civil disobedience yet in the fight for immigrant rights. After their release, NIYA went to work publicizing de los Santos’s plight. Martinez tapped into her North Carolina network and convinced the detainee’s family to work with the young activists. They started an online petition for his release. They raised money for a bond payment. They got a local attorney to take his case. They convinced a reporter to write about de los Santos’s story in a local alternative weekly. It’s a powerful tactic. They call it “working cases,” and it’s the focus of their activism.
A few weeks later, when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano held a town-hall meeting up the road at Duke University, Martinez and other activists were there to present her with an envelope containing the petition, which had more than 2,000 signatures. Napolitano spoke about the Obama administration’s policy of focusing on deporting criminals—rather than, say, people with minor traffic violations. Javier de los Santos’s sister, Griselda, was there to challenge her. “My brother Javier has lived in North Carolina for a decade,” she told Napolitano through a translator. “My brother has done nothing wrong. He should be home with his wife and newborn child.” She pointed out that his deportation would violate the administration’s own policy. “How are you going to address the issue and how soon?” she asked.
Napolitano’s response was encouraging: “If the envelope contains information, let’s make sure I get it.” One month later, de los Santos was released from detention on bond. Today, he remains in the country—now with a work permit and a driver’s license. He’s applying for a visa, and a judge is expected to decide whether he can permanently stay in the country next fall.
The success of the campaign made the three activists wonder: Could they replicate it on a grand scale by getting themselves detained on purpose? Inside immigration detention facilities, they would surely find dozens, if not hundreds, of low-priority detainees like de los Santos whom they could help. At the same time, they could publicize the fact that it wasn’t just criminals who were being deported, as the Obama administration kept insisting. “We realized we could be more effective if we just went straight to the source,” Abdollahi says. Doing so would flip the script on immigration agents; the activists would be taking advantage of their undocumented status and thus could be detained and deported. Deportation was unlikely, because they were Dreamers without serious criminal records. Even so, this would make the risk they’d taken in Charlotte look like nothing. But Saavedra, Abdollahi, and Martinez had been growing more fearless, and more radical, since they’d met.
Before they stood up and announced they were undocumented, before they started putting themselves on the line and getting arrested, before they started making plans to infiltrate detention centers, Abdollahi, Saavedra, and Martinez were like hundreds of thousands of other Dreamers across America: scared of admitting to anyone they were undocumented. But when they hit their late teens and early twenties, they’d begun to run up against the limits that their status placed on their future. The only way to get their lives on track would be to fight to change immigration policy.
Mohammad Abdollahi, known as Mo, is a tall, brash 27-year-old Iranian with thick eyebrows and a Beatles-mop hairdo. He speaks frenetically, as if he’s always running out of time. His parents brought him to the country when he was three, and they settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His aha moment came after he applied to Eastern Michigan University and was accepted. “The counselor said, ‘You’re the perfect student we want for this university,’” he remembers. “They handed me an acceptance letter. I was super excited. And then, within like two minutes, they came back and said, ‘We missed this spot on your application where you wrote you weren’t a citizen.’ And they took the acceptance away. And that’s when I realized, I can’t stay silent.”
He has more to risk from deportation than most. He’s gay, and Iran has been known to throw gays in jail—it even has the death penalty for “repeated acts” of homosexuality. But Abdollahi seems to wear the risk as a badge of honor. He was first arrested at a protest in May 2010, and shortly afterward Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) showed up at his house and briefly detained his parents. “For folks from a Middle Eastern background, being undocumented is very embarrassing, so that was especially humiliating,” he says. “So I’ve got a personal vendetta against ICE. It’s one thing to come after me, but why go after my family?”
His parents have since legalized their status; their U.S.–born daughter was able to file a visa petition for them when she turned 21. They do not support his activism. “My mom has said, ‘You’re not Mexican,’” Abdollahi says, laughing. “That’s true. But this affects all of us.”
Viridiana Martinez—friends call her “Viri”—has a strikingly different personality. The 26-year-old leads with her emotions; she can be laughing one minute and crying the next. But she channels that emotion into her activism, summoning righteous indignation on cue. Martinez was born in Monterrey, Mexico, where her father had a relatively cushy office job until 1993, when he was laid off. Unable to find work, he came to the United States on a tourist visa and started working as a farmhand. The rest of the family soon followed, and Martinez grew up in a small, cozy but cluttered bungalow with a large yard in the rural town of Sanford, North Carolina.
As one of the only Latino kids in her school, she had trouble fitting in. “I remember being stared at like I was some weird object,” she says. But she excelled academically, took AP classes, and in high school became the marching band drum major. “I always wanted to prove, ‘I might be the Mexican girl, but I’ll get as good grades as you. No, I’ll get better grades than you. I’ll speak your language and write it better than you.’”
Martinez dreamed of getting a degree in international relations and working at the United Nations. But like Abdollahi, she got a reality check when she applied to nearby North Carolina State University. The school told her she’d have to pay tuition as a foreign student, which would be more than triple the in-state rate. She couldn’t afford it. “I remember telling my parents, why would you bring us here and put us in this situation?” she says. “‘I can’t move on with my life, and I don’t know what to do.’ It was hard to find myself saying that, when I knew they came looking for a better life for us. Daddy just wanted to provide for us like any father would.”
Martinez went to work as a cashier at a McDonald’s where her mom was the manager. It was not what she’d imagined for herself. A few months into the job, she attempted suicide by overdosing on her anxiety meds. “I was grateful to have a job, but you know, I’d worked for so much more,” she says. “Everything just went ‘boom.’” She was hospitalized for several weeks, and when she got out, she found an outlet for her anxiety and her ambitions. It began when she went to a meeting where Representative Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois and leading advocate for immigration reform, spoke about building a movement to change the law. “I drank the Kool-Aid,” Martinez says. She first joined a mainstream group associated with Gutierrez, Reform Immigration for America, but soon started her own organization, the NC Dream Team.
Marco Saavedra is in many ways the most privileged of the three, but he comes from the poorest background. His parents were subsistence farmers in the tiny farming village of San Miguel in the Southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Their first language is Mixtec, not Spanish. When Saavedra was three, they carried him across the Sonoran Desert and then took a plane to New York City, where they settled in Washington Heights. His father started his own food-distribution business; he now runs a Oaxacan restaurant in the South Bronx. His mother worked as a custodian. When Saavedra was in seventh grade, a teacher at his Harlem middle school recommended him for a program called Prep for Prep that funnels inner-city youth to elite private schools. The program was challenging, but Saavedra finished and was admitted to Deerfield Academy, the prestigious prep school in western Massachusetts. From there he was accepted as a foreign student on a full scholarship to Kenyon College in Ohio, where he studied sociology.
Saavedra is skinny, with short hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He looks like a budding professor and talks like one, too. Explaining NIYA’s confrontational tactics, he told me, “The only way to subvert hegemonic relationships is through the theater of the oppressed.” While his compatriots came to activism because they were pissed off about not being able to attend college, Saavedra is pissed because of what he learned at college. He studied the history of activism and oppression in the United States, and what he learned fueled his anger over his situation. His senior thesis was on W.E.B. Du Bois, the early-20th-century civil-rights leader and sociologist. Saavedra was particularly struck by Du Bois’s argument that it was beneath African Americans to beg for rights that belonged inherently to mankind. In his thesis, Saavedra updated that argument for undocumented immigrants. “We have contributed so much to this country,” he says. “We’re human beings. We have a claim to rights because, yes, they rightfully belong to us.”
In the spring of 2010, Saavedra, Martinez, and Abdollahi met while joining thousands of Dreamers in Washington, D.C., for a mass protest urging passage of the Dream Act, which would give permanent residency to undocumented youth like them. At the time, Washington was obsessed with health care and the stimulus. While some Democrats, including President Obama, still talked about pushing for a comprehensive immigration bill, most insiders thought it had little chance of passing before the 2010 midterms. The Dreamers believed they had a shot, however. In recent years, they had been staging rallies across the country featuring young undocumented Dreamers, often wearing caps and gowns to symbolize their thwarted ambitions of going to college, outing themselves publicly and telling their stories. The Dreamers had made themselves a cause célèbre, with even many conservatives expressing sympathy for these young people who were in the country through “no fault of their own.”
But as the activists started meeting with legislators, it became clear that many of their allies in Congress, and some pro-immigrant advocates as well, felt that pushing for a stand-alone Dream Act, instead of trying to include it in a comprehensive reform bill, would steal the urgency from a true immigration overhaul. “The congressional Hispanic Caucus told us, ‘Every time you talk about the Dream Act you dismantle the fight for your parents,’” Abdollahi says. “For us that’s never made sense. All of us have heard our parents cry at night, ashamed of themselves and at the pain they’ve put us to because they think they’ve done something wrong by bringing us here. They want the Dream Act to pass as much as we do.”
Abdollahi favored a more confrontational approach——one that would involve having Dreamers get arrested and risk deportation through sit-ins, hunger strikes, and other actions. It was a tactic that even many of his fellow Dreamers, who wanted the movement to continue putting a sympathetic face forward, opposed. But he and others, including Martinez and Saavedra, went ahead and organized a series of sit-ins across the country. The first took place in Senator John McCain’s office in Arizona on May 17, 2010—the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education—and Abdollahi was dragged out and arrested with four others. Saavedra joined a ten-day hunger strike in front of Senator Charles Schumer’s office in New York to push him to introduce the Dream Act as a stand-alone bill. (The New York Democrat had co-sponsored the Dream Act but at the time said he was working toward comprehensive immigration reform instead.)
Meanwhile, Martinez and her organization, the NC Dream Team, organized a two-week fast outside the offices of Democratic Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina. “We hunted her down,” Martinez says. “We would go to where she was speaking and confront her. She’d say, ‘You girls need to eat!’ We brought the Dream Act fight to North Carolina.” Hagan kept repeating that she supported a comprehensive bill, but Martinez—new to politics, as they all were—felt sure that the clearly sympathetic Hagan would back the Dream Act if it made it to a vote.
During those protests, the movement began to fray. At times, the conflict between these young immigrants and the old guard burst into view. In July 2010, Abdollahi and Martinez and five other undocumented youth, wearing caps and gowns, huddled on the carpet of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office and refused to leave.
Representative Gutierrez, the one who initially inspired Martinez, called them on his cell phone and tried to convince them to back down from their insistence on the Dream Act. “I empathize with your frustration,” he said. “But every time someone says the whole thing can’t pass, only part of it can pass, it weakens us, it divides us. We want a united movement for comprehensive immigration reform.”
Abdollahi interrupted the congressman, his voice shaking with anger. He told him that he and others had been arrested at the McCain sit-in and had been placed in deportation hearings. “So for you to put down these six youths in this office is a shame,” he said, his voice cracking. “You need to support them.”
The action may have helped to force a vote. “Within a week, Senator Reid came out and said, ‘I support the Dream Act as a stand-alone bill,” Abdollahi says. “It worked.” On December 8, 2010, the House of Representatives passed the Dream Act. Dreamers streamed into the Capitol the following week, going from office to office lobbying senators. Martinez and Abdollahi were among those who gathered in the Senate gallery for the vote on December 18. But the bill failed by five votes, with five Democrats opposing it: Max Baucus and Jon Tester from Montana, Ben Nelson from Nebraska, Mark Pryor from Arkansas, and, to Martinez’s chagrin, the focus of her efforts, Hagan of North Carolina. “I almost fell off the balcony of the Senate,” remembers Martinez. “I was shocked.”
The failure of the Dream Act jolted Abdollahi, Saavedra, and Martinez. They blamed the very folks they’d been working with: fellow activists who were resistant to using more confrontational tactics. They were even angrier at the “supportive” politicians, including Obama, who they felt hadn’t worked hard enough to pass the Dream Act. So along with a number of other activists and affiliates, they broke off from the large umbrella group of Dreamer activists, United We Dream, and formed the National Immigrant Youth Alliance.
NIYA was intentionally leaderless, free of any overarching structure that would dictate tactics. There are currently 33 NIYA groups in 30 states, and each is free to be as confrontational as it thinks is necessary. “We got tired of advocates speaking for us,” says Abdollahi. “We wanted an autonomous voice. We said, ‘Let’s do this on our own and find the youth around the country. Let’s push forward.’”
Two years later, in June 2012, the Dreamers would get much of what they’d lobbied for when Obama announced a policy, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that would give Dreamers a reprieve from deportation and provide them with work permits. But the NIYA activists had already moved on to a broader mission. They wanted to challenge the detention and deportation of ordinary, nonviolent immigrants, and they weren’t going to wait for politicians to do it. They were going to stop the deportations themselves—case by case if they had to.
Around the time they helped Javier de los Santos get of detention, NIYA was hearing from people all across the country who needed help saving a family member from deportation. “It would literally work like dominoes,” Abdollahi says. “We’d do one case, and then we’d have somebody else contact us. Every month we were doing a different case of somebody who would contact us from the previous one.”
NIYA has plenty of sympathetic detainees to choose from. The country started jailing more immigrants two decades ago. In 1995, our immigration system had about 7,500 undocumented immigrants in detention on a daily basis. Last year, Congress mandated that ICE have 34,000 detention beds. As was made clear during a 2012 committee hearing, ICE’s then-director John Morton interpreted that mandate to mean the agency must keep those beds full on a daily basis.
As federal funding for detention has skyrocketed, the nation’s multibillion-dollar private prison industry—primarily the GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which together spent nearly $45 million on campaign contributions and lobbyists in the last decade—has stepped in to meet the demand. It’s not cheap to detain and deport people. It costs approximately $164 a night for detention and about $23,000 per deportation. ICE’s annual budget has doubled since 2005, to more than $5.82 billion in 2012. (Not coincidentally, GEO and CCA more than doubled their revenues from immigrant detention between 2005 and 2011, to more than $3 billion.)
Despite the spending, the system was showing serious strains, best symbolized by a growing backlog of pending cases in immigration courts—hundreds of thousands of them. In 2011, amid rising criticism for his aggressive deportation policies, President Obama announced a shift. The administration, he said, would focus solely on deporting immigrants convicted of a crime. This was smart politics—it signaled to Latino voters that he was creating a more humane deportation policy—but it also gave ICE new guidelines for allocating the agency’s limited resources. Over the past decade, local police departments had begun checking the immigration status of people they came in contact with, through programs like 287(g) in Charlotte. This had led to a backlog of hundreds of thousands of immigration cases waiting for a hearing in front of a judge.
In a series of directives building on Obama’s policy, ICE’s Morton began to direct immigration officers to focus on criminals and dismiss low-priority cases. The most significant of these memos was released in June 2011. It urged field offices to use “prosecutorial discretion” on a case-by-case basis to release more immigrants from detention and to defer or dismiss deportation proceedings against them. The “Morton memos” listed a broad range of immigrants eligible for relief: those who had been in the country a long time, those who came here as children and would be eligible for the Dream Act, veterans and active-duty members of the military and their families, and immigrants without serious criminal records, among a host of others.
At first, Morton’s directive appeared to inspire some changes in the system. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano announced that ICE would review 288,360 cases pending in immigration court. By this May, prosecutorial discretion had been invoked to dismiss 20,311 cases—around 6 percent of those reviewed. Meanwhile, however, the backlog of immigration cases continued to grow—in May, it stood at 333,433.
Beyond the review process, it’s hard to know how well the memos have been implemented. ICE doesn’t track how many people in detention are eligible for discretion, or have been granted it. As proof of success, officials say that 55 percent of those deported are now immigrants with criminal histories, nearly double the percentage when Obama took office. A senior Department of Homeland official, who wishes to remain anonymous, said the memos have made a difference—to a point. “Are there people in detention that eligible for discretion? Sure,” he said. “But less than any other point in history.”
Morton’s policy—backed by the president—has not been implemented consistently throughout the country, and large numbers of “low-priority” undocumented immigrants continue to be detained. One big reason: The memo wasn’t binding, and many ICE officials, backed up by powerful members of Congress, insisted that it would prevent them from doing their job. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, accused the Obama administration of trying to “circumvent Congress and give a free pass to illegal immigrants who have already broken our law.”
The union representing 7,000 ICE deportation officers refused to allow its members to participate in a training course on implementing Morton’s directives. Chris Crane, head of the National ICE Council, argues that “special interests,” by which he means pro-immigrant groups, have hijacked immigration policies. “Obama has hired people to run the agency who have radical beliefs,” he says. “They want to stop immigration enforcement and stop holding people in custody. It’s outside the law.” Crane says the Morton memos have put dangerous criminals back on the street, like illegal immigrants who drive without licenses. Now, he says, “We have to wait until they kill you.”
David Leopold, a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says the Morton memos have been sporadically implemented at best. “It’s good in theory, but it hasn’t made much of a difference in real life,” he says. “The problem is, the criminals know enough not to open the door when ICE comes knocking. They become fugitives. It’s easier to catch law-abiding immigrants.”
The implementation of Obama and Morton’s policy was further muddled by the congressional appropriations bill that mandated that ICE have 34,000 detention center beds. According to Representative Ted Deutch of Florida, a Democrat, ICE officials are being told, on one hand, to use discretion to let people out—and, on the other, to keep the beds full. “That, it seems, is why most people who come through the door end up staying.”
In July 2012, Abdollahi, Saavedra, Martinez, and two other NIYA activists piled in a car and headed to Florida. They planned to infiltrate the Broward Transitional Center, a GEO detention facility near Fort Lauderdale that houses only low-priority cases. Broward appeared to embody the contradictory nature of immigration policy. In 2009, ICE had held up the facility as a model of a kinder, gentler immigration system. The argument went that, since immigration violations are not usually a jailable offense, then detention centers shouldn’t feel like jail—they should feel like a motel, except you can’t leave. In Broward, detainees have flat-screen TVs in their rooms and are free to roam the facility for most of the day. But why were they locked up in the first place? According to lawyers who work in Broward, most of the inmates at Broward shouldn’t be detained if ICE were following the guidelines laid out by Obama and Morton.
Broward is segregated by gender, so the plan was for Martinez to get herself detained and organize among the women at Broward, while Saavedra would be arrested and organize the men. Abdollahi would lead the campaign from outside Broward, publicizing the plights of the unjustly detained immigrants in the center.
There was an immediate hitch: It turned out that it wasn’t so easy to get arrested. The activists dropped off Saavedra at Port Everglades, a large commercial port near the Broward detention center. They’d heard of immigrants being detained by the security and the cops stationed there. The would-be infiltrator put on dirty jeans and a T-shirt, to look the part of a day laborer, and headed toward the guard station at the port’s entrance. “I’m speaking in Spanish, saying ‘Estoy buscando el trabajo. A job. A job,’” Saavedra recalls. “I’m saying ‘job’ like it’s the only English word I know.” But the guard just said that he couldn’t let him in unless he had an appointment with specific business.
Saavedra walked away and called Abdollahi and Martinez. They told him to try again, so he went back and started acting desperate, telling the guard he had no money or food in Spanish and bad English. Finally, the guard took the bait and called over a policeman who was guarding the port. The officer ambled up to the guard station and greeted Saavedra in his minimal Spanish, “Cómo estás?” But even the cop wouldn’t take the bait. “He’s continually saying, ‘Don’t tell me you’re illegal. Don’t tell me you’re illegal.’ And to shoo me away, he offers me five bucks to get on the bus,” Saavedra says. “I don’t even look down at the money. It’s so out of left field, it’s not part of the script.”
It seems odd that it would be so hard for an undocumented immigrant to get arrested. But Saavedra says the experience is actually, from a certain slant, an accurate snapshot of the undocumented experience: You never know when you’ll be detained or not. “It seems so arbitrary,” he says. “Who’s going to be a sympathetic person, and who’s going to, like, not be. It’s an anecdote of what really happens to folks.”
The next day, Saavedra took a more direct route. He was dropped off in front of a Border Patrol station in an industrial area near Port Everglades. He walked into the gated office and started asking about a missing friend who’d likely been picked up by Border Patrol agents. The officer spoke Spanish, and it didn’t take long before Saavedra let it “slip” that he had crossed the border with his friend and was also here illegally. Before long, he was in handcuffs. Since Saavedra’s Dreamer status would keep him from being detained, he lied and said he crossed the border as an adult. As he was processed, the officer looked at his arrest record and found the civil disobedience offense from the McCain sit-in. “And then the agent says, ‘You look like a bag-and-ready case,” Saavedra recalls. “And that’s the only time I freaked out. I’m thinking, ‘Are they going to put me on a fast track to deportation?’”
The day of Saavedra’s arrest, a Broward detainee named Claudio Rojas got a phone call. “My son called me that night,” Rojas remembers. “He said he had a surprise for me, and that I would find out.”
Rojas had been in Broward for five months. His lawyer had been arguing, without success, that he was a Morton Memo case. Rojas had been picked up because his son was driving his car without a license. He had no criminal record. He was a hardworking gardener in his late forties with kids. He paid his taxes. He was devoutly Christian. He’d been in the U.S. for 12 years. Rojas was also a people person, which made him a natural organizer. While talking to other prisoners, he had realized there were many there like him who should get out under ICE’s own policy. He’d begun collecting names and passing them on to his son on the outside. His son, after hearing about NIYA’s success with “working cases,” had contacted Abdollahi.
Rojas was one of the primary reasons NIYA had chosen Broward as the place to send Saavedra and Martinez. But he was in the dark about their plans, except for the cryptic phone call from his son. The next day, Rojas woke up to a knock on his door. It was Saavedra. “He said, ‘I know your son.’ He told me that he was here to help me,” Rojas recalls. “I was shocked, ‘You came to help me?’ And then I told him, ‘Well, let’s get to work.’ We didn’t waste a second.”
The next day, they started moving through the facility, interviewing the 600 men housed there. Broward is low security. Except for the walls around the perimeter, it could be mistaken for a low-budget retirement home. It’s painted pastel pink. There’s a courtyard with palm trees and a volleyball court. The rooms are usually unlocked. “Within a few days we had talked to everyone and distributed a hotline they could call,” Rojas says.
Abdollahi and the others had set up in another activist’s house nearby, and they started covering the walls with easel-size paper filled with details from cases of people that Saavedra and Rojas and Martinez were finding inside. The NIYA “hotline” was initially Abdollahi’s personal cell phone. Within a week, he says, he was getting phone calls from detainees or their families every minute. “We realized we couldn’t do this with just one phone,” he says. “So we set up a line that would go to different people working across the country. From 7 A.M. to 11 P.M., we were fielding calls. The only time we’d take breaks was when the detainees were locked in their rooms. We’d sneak to the beach at 1 A.M. for a break.”
Abdollahi and his team took this information and started calling family members, figuring out who had the strongest cases—and which families were willing to help NIYA mount the kind of campaign it would take to get them out. They chose about 70 and started building campaigns around them. They put up Internet petitions with sympathetic details about the detainees, listing the name and contact number of a senator and congressman in the detainee’s area along with a sample script of what to tell their office. They called local media to get the detainees’ stories told. Telemundo and Univision aired stories. Families and church groups helped to get the word out, organized vigils, called lawmakers—anything that might pressure ICE to release their loved ones.
The first victory came quickly. Saavedra and Rojas had met a Dreamer who’d spent five months in Broward after being picked up one night for being in a park after hours. After NIYA put up a petition telling his story, he was released immediately.
A few days after Saavedra’s arrest, Martinez infiltrated the women’s side of Broward. Before she got to work finding promising cases, she had a tough call to make—telling her parents what she’d done and where she was. “I told my mom,” Martinez says. “And she was like, ‘Why are you doing this? And I was like, ‘Mom, because it could be you. And it’s not right that people go through this, you know? So I need to go in and see what’s going on. And you say you have faith and go to church and have faith in God. Well, it’s time to put that into practice. I’m going to be fine.’” Her mother tried to understand, she says. Her father, on the other hand, “always says, ‘If you’re ready to go to Mexico, then go right ahead.’ I’m like, ‘OK, dad. Thanks.’”
Broward housed many fewer female detainees than males—only around 150—and Martinez found that they were extremely reluctant to talk. “It was hard. I didn’t have anyone like Claudio [Rojas],” she says. “And, for most of these women, being detained was not the biggest battle in their life. They were dealing with issues like domestic violence and rape.” But after a few days, they began to tell Martinez their stories. One of the first was Norma Ramirez-Amaya, who hadn’t known what to make of Martinez at first. “Everybody was thinking she was out of her mind,” Ramirez-Amaya recalls. “What can she do for us? She was in the same position I was—illegal. It was kind of hard to understand how she could help me.”
Ramirez-Amaya had grown up in Mexico and crossed the U.S. border for the first time when she was 12, without her immediate family. The cousins who brought her over had promised to pay her for domestic work but never did. After marrying, she was abused by her husband, which made her eligible for a visa as a victim of domestic violence. “She should have protection under the Violence Against Women Act,” Martinez says. “And she’s eligible for release since she has three kids that are citizens.”
Ramirez-Amaya had been arrested on questionable charges and landed in Broward. Once inside, she experienced excessive menstrual bleeding, which is common among rape victims. A month later, she says, she was too weak to walk and was finally taken to the hospital. “They tested my blood and told me I was anemic,” she says. “They told me I’m lucky because I didn’t have enough blood in my body. I was going to pass away.” The doctors gave her a transfusion and operated on her ovaries, then sent her back to Broward. But she says the clinic there didn’t provide the right medications, a mixture of hormonal medications and vitamins, and after a few days, she was found in the bathroom in a pool of her own blood and ended up back in the hospital.
Throughout all this, Ramirez-Amaya says the attendants at the Broward clinic showed remarkably little sympathy. “When I was really sick, they were making jokes like ‘She’s probably like that because she got raped,’” Ramirez says tearfully. “And that hurt me bad because that was right. I’d told them about that when it first happened. That was really hard.”
It took Martinez several days to convince Ramirez-Amaya to go public with her story. “I told Norma, ‘Trust me. This is going to work. You have a lot in your favor,’” says Martinez. The team on the outside set up an online campaign and, less than a month later, immigration officers came to Ramirez-Amaya’s room and told her she was getting released. “I felt like I was flying in that moment,” she says.
After two weeks inside, Saavedra and Martinez had interviewed all the detainees. On Broward’s pay phones, they began to do interviews with media outlets. After they spoke with Telemundo and Univision, the secret was out. “That’s on every TV,” Martinez says. “And so everyone’s like, ‘La Infiltradora! She’s here!’”
The day after they gave the TV interviews, she and Saavedra were called to meet with an ICE officer. “She told us, ‘You meet the requirements for release,’” Martinez recalls. “I said, ‘Why aren’t you releasing all the other people who meet the requirements?’ And she told me, ‘I’m not in the business of telling you about other people’s cases.’”
They were told to provide the phone number of someone who could pick them up. Instead, they gave the officer a list of people they thought should be released, including Ramirez-Amaya and Rojas, and told her they weren’t leaving until they were all released. The woman scoffed, and shortly after they were forcibly escorted from Broward.
After Saavedra was let out, around 500 men gathered in the courtyard. They didn’t know if the infiltrator was being released or deported, and they were worried about him. “Nobody could calm these people down,” Rojas says. “One of the GEO agents came up to me, he had treated me well, and now he asked me to help him. I told him to give me an assurance that Marco was let go. He called over the official who had signed his release papers. And then I went outside and calmed everyone down.”
When Saavedra was released, Rojas was 12 days into what he calls a “spiritual fast.” It didn’t begin as a strike or a protest, he says, but rather as his way of showing his faith in God and asking for help. That weekend, however, Rojas organized a hunger strike inside the facility. Hundreds of detainees skipped their meals. Saavedra, Martinez, and the other activists held a march on the outside, with a banner broadcasting the news of the hunger strike happening inside. “It was a way to exert pressure,” Rojas says. “A symbol. To show them that we could unite. So they had to reconsider how they were dealing with us.”
Rojas says things started to change. “The system opened up, because information was finally getting out. The officials that were in there before—the ones who would say, ‘No matter what your attorney says, we’re going to deport you’—they were transferred out.” Most important, people began to be released. Rojas says there was a paper hanging on the wall with the 25 or so cases that the immigration judge would hear every day. Before they started organizing, maybe two would be granted bond each day. Suddenly, it was more like 15 out of 25 being released. “We could see the system open up,” Rojas says. “Next to the names on the paper, it read ‘bond, bond, bond.’”
The NIYA activists continued working on Broward cases for months after the infiltration. They estimate that they helped to free between 40 and 60 detainees. Marc Moore, ICE’s Miami field office director, denies that NIYA’s efforts led to any releases. It’s impossible to know how many cases can be credited to NIYA’s effort, since the immigrants could have been released for other reasons and other groups are working to help the wrongly detained. But the activists can point to cases where the individuals were detained for months and then, after NIYA got involved, were released—often without explanation.
Rojas is one of them. On August 31, after being in Broward for seven months, Rojas was called into an immigration official’s office and told that he was being released. “I wanted to surprise my wife,” he says. “But I couldn’t remember my P.O. box number so I had to call her. She started to cry. I told her, ‘They say come get me. They’re letting me out right now.’” Rojas is now living with his wife and son in Miami, in a trailer with a tidy garden. He has a work permit and a driver’s license, although he has to check in with ICE periodically and was recently given an ankle bracelet to wear so he wouldn’t abscond before his next court date.
NIYA’s bold action drew attention to Broward and its low-priority detainees. In October 2012, 26 members of Congress sent a letter to ICE Director Morton demanding an investigation of Broward and a review of every detainee being held there. The letter specifically refers to Ramirez-Amaya’s case, saying she did not receive “necessary treatment for serious medical conditions.” So far, according to Congressman Deutch, who organized the letter to ICE and whose district includes Broward, the agency has rebuffed the call for an investigation, saying that it already reviews detainees on a case-by-case basis.
Still, there have been changes inside Broward. The detainees who remained after the NIYA infiltration have continued to organize; shortly after the letter from members of Congress, around 450 Broward detainees wrote their own letter to Morton, the ICE director, decrying their situation. In November, according to the Miami-based nonprofit Americans for Immigrant Justice, which has also advocated for changes in Broward, ICE agreed under pressure to put a new assistant field office director in charge of Broward. The attorneys say the new leadership is more responsive to requests to release detainees than the last one. Still, they say, the majority of detainees simply shouldn’t be there.
After being released from Broward, Martinez stayed in Florida until February, working cases from Broward and other detention centers. She’s now back in North Carolina, continuing to publicize detainees’ plights while lobbying to pass a bill that would give driving licenses to undocumented immigrants. Saavedra returned to New York for six months to help his parents in their South Bronx restaurant. He’s now in Kentucky, doing faith-based organizing and working cases. Abdollahi travels the country helping NIYA affiliates train and fire up activists.
Abdollahi says there are dozens of groups now working deportation cases. In all, he estimates they’ve done around a thousand cases and have been successful at getting people out of detention around 90 percent of the time. (Those figures are impossible to verify.) Abdollahi believes that exposing what’s happening on the ground will eventually inspire changes in the law. “It’s the best way because it’s authentic,” he says. “It’s what the community wants instead of working top-down. Let’s work locally, and at some point it creates problems for the powers that be.”
This spring, the NIYA activists were watching the progress of yet another immigration-reform bill. They learned the hard way, in 2010, not to hold their breath waiting for politicians to act. But the action at Broward exposed flaws in the detention system that the Senate version of immigration reform would mitigate. Most profoundly, it would put the legal burden on ICE to prove that there’s a reason to keep someone in detention. “It’s the complete opposite of how the system functions now,” says Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer with the Migration Policy Institute. “Now ICE has to be convinced there’s a reason to let someone out. This bill would make the established preference not to detain.” The bill would expand the use of alternative methods, like ankle bracelets. It would also outsource the responsibility for making sure immigrants show up at hearings, to nonprofits and service agencies or the individuals themselves. “So, a church, for instance, could say that they’ll take responsibility for 50 immigrants and assure ICE that they’ll show up for their hearings,” Chishti says. “This is a pioneering community-based system, and to write that into law is pretty interesting.”
But Chishti, like many reform advocates, believes that “at best, the law has a 50-50 chance of passing this year.” The sticking point will likely come with conservative Republicans in the House who oppose a path to citizenship. “The majority of the Republican caucus will not support immigration reform,” Chishti says. “Will Speaker Boehner allow this to come to the floor when it doesn’t have a majority of the majority?” On June 18, John Boehner announced that he would not allow a vote without majority-Republican support, lengthening the odds of passage.
Abdollahi is helping organize another action in Washington with hundreds of immigrant youth in July. Once again, they’ll visit lawmakers, push for reform, and raise a ruckus. But they’re not banking on even a comprehensive bill dismantling the detention system, and they have reason to be skeptical beyond Washington gridlock. The Department of Homeland Security budget for next year includes only a slight decrease in funding for detention beds, from 34,000 to 32,800. And when I toured the Broward facility this spring, officials pointed out fresh construction: They’re enlarging the area where they initially process and evaluate new detainees. Even as lawmakers work to end the system as it stands, GEO is expanding Broward.
Martinez says that she’s not expecting an immigration bill to fix the problem. “We can’t really wait for things to just happen—for Obama to wake up on the right side of the bed or something,” she says. “We have to pressure them into making things happen. It means putting yourself on the line. It means continuing to infiltrate detention centers, exposing what’s going on inside. This needs changing—not next week, not next month, but now.”
In April, Martinez and Abdollahi were together again, in a small two-bedroom apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina. They’d come to train two new infiltrators, young NIYA activists Claudia Munoz and Dulce Guerrero. The two were headed for a detention center in Michigan, where ICE detainees are held in a jail alongside criminals. It’s one of seven infiltrations NIYA plans for upcoming months. Abdollahi and Martinez pretended to handcuff and arrest the two activists, pulling their arms back and kicking their feet apart. But mostly they focused on the mission that has animated NIYA from the start: helping undocumented immigrants transcend their fears.
Martinez told the new recruits how the processing works, how to make sure they don’t check the box that means they’ve agree to be deported. She gave them tips on gaining people’s trust inside. She told them not to get overwhelmed by the painful stories they’re going to hear from other detainees. “Just take a breather,” she says. “On some days you feel, ‘Oh my god, this is so overwhelming, I wasn’t expecting this.’ Don’t get hung up on it. Go ahead, cry it out. You’re an instrument to get out these cases, and let them know there is an option for them to get out. But don’t dwell on stuff that brings you down, you have to be strong.”