On the way to his asylum hearing at 26 Federal Plaza this morning, Marco Saavedra first stopped across the street at the African Burial Ground National Monument. The site is the final resting place of an estimated 15,000 Africans, many of them enslaved. He “took a moment of silence to breathe in the place that we’re in,” he later told journalists. It was a characteristic moment for Saavedra: using the spotlight cast on him to point to other injustices, and remaining distinctly aware that the land upon which we live has a complex history.
Saavedra is the son of Natalia Mendez and Antonio Saavedra, owners of the beloved La Morada restaurant in the South Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood. The restaurant, whose name refers both to the color purple and to a shelter or abode, is known equally for its authentic Oaxacan cuisine and its role as a hub for community organizing. Marco works there full-time as a waiter and manager. He is also a prominent undocumented activist with a track record of direct actions that have led the U.S. government to open deportation proceedings against him.
Saavedra’s years of work in the community mean that he has an unusual level of support. Before entering today’s hearing, in which a judge was expected to rule on his request for political asylum, Saavedra marched once around the Jacob Javits Federal Building, flanked by over a hundred supporters: family members, friends, clergy, academics, restaurant patrons, and even a group of undergraduates from his alma mater, Kenyon College, in Ohio. An additional 4,000 people have expressed their support via an online petition.
The Saavedra family originally anticipated today’s hearing would last about two hours. Instead, it ran closer to eight. From inside the court late this afternoon, WNYC’s Beth Fertig reported that the judge did not reach a decision, but instead “asked both sides to submit final arguments in writing in January.”
In an interview yesterday with Democracy Now!, Saavedra explained his case for asylum: because of his history as a human rights and immigrant rights activist, as well as his status as an indigenous person and religious minority, he would not be safe if deported to Mexico. At a press conference before the march and hearing this morning, Saavedra’s lawyer, Bryan Johnson, elaborated on how high the stakes were for his client: “If Marco is sent back to Mexico, he will be persecuted. He will be tortured, and possibly killed, because of his political opinions… and he will have no protection from the state of Mexico.”
Saavedra first became politically active in college. As an undocumented student who was brought across the border by his parents at the age of three, he might have benefited from the DREAM Act, which passed the House of Representatives in 2010 but did not pass the Senate or become law. He graduated from Kenyon the next year, and soon began escalating his political activities.
In 2011, he was arrested at an immigrants’ rights protest in North Carolina. (The location was chosen because it was the upcoming site of the Democratic National Convention, and President Obama was deporting record numbers of people every year.)
In 2012, he and fellow activist Viridiana Martinez got themselves arrested in Florida, with the express purpose of infiltrating a detention facility. Once inside Broward Transitional Center, Saavedra and Martinez worked with fellow activists inside and outside the prison to draw attention to the cases of numerous undocumented people who were low priorities for detention and had committed minimum infractions. Their actions led to the release of dozens of people from detention. (A new film about this action, The Infiltrators, won multiple awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. One of the key organizers featured in the story, Claudio Rojas, was recently deported to Argentina.)
In 2013, Marco “self-deported” to Mexico. He then returned to the U.S. border with eight other fellow activists, all of them in graduation caps and gowns, and requested asylum. This group became known as the “Dream 9.”
Saavedra’s deportation case has been active for seven years–it began when he was purposely arrested in 2012 and his arresting agent realized he had a criminal record (from the 2011 protest).
As the asylum hearing got underway, dozens of supporters remained outside, holding signs, chanting, and singing “This Little Light of Mine.” Angelica Delacruz, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic and a Mott Haven resident, said that to her, the restaurant “means community and love.” She wasn’t surprised by the outpouring of support. “It wouldn’t be less than this,” she said, noting how resilient Marco’s family was and how they’d managed to create “a safe space for people.”
Celeste Ramirez learned about Saavedra’s case in a different way: through her professors at Kenyon College, where she is a sophomore. Working with the campus group Adelante, Ramirez and others organized about 20 current students to drive from Ohio together to support their fellow alumnus.
Fabiola Mendieta, a community activist, said, “This is our land. We have indigenous roots. And if the person in the White House can study a little bit of history, he could tell that this our land. I feel that they’re just afraid that we want to claim what is ours.”
But Mendieta didn’t reserve her frustration for conservative politicians. She noted that the community had backed many current lawmakers who did not attend to support Saavedra. “That is devastating—especially from AOC,” she said, singling out Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Mendieta said Ocasio-Cortez did not return Saavedra’s calls for support. (Ocasio-Cortez’s office has not responded to a request for comment.)
One public official who was in attendance was Xamayla Rose, the city’s Deputy Public Advocate of Community & Empowerment. “I’m here today standing in solidarity with Marco Saavedra,” she said, calling him “a freedom fighter” and seeing a connection between his activism and the state of immigration in the city today. “Right now, we know that there’s been more presence of raids, and ICE, and immigration officials in New York City, and particularly in Brooklyn. I feel like at this time, more than ever, it’s important for the community to come together,” especially around immigrants knowing their rights.
Saavedra’s case also comes along at a time when hundreds of thousands of his fellow young immigrants could find their statuses in jeopardy. Later this month, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case brought by New York, California, and the District of Columbia challenging the Trump administration’s decision to terminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Saavedra is not a DACA recipient, but his older sister Yajaira is.
“We are humble. We are from Oaxaca, Mexico. We’re indigenous folks,” Yajaira said during the press conference, noting her family’s Mixtec ancestry. “Nobody can be illegal on stolen land, right?”
“If you want the best mole to stick around, the best Oaxacan food, the best tacos according to Thrillist, served in the South Bronx, then let’s make sure to support Marco.”
For his part, Saavedra hopes that his case will set a precedent for activists seeking asylum, and will inspire Dreamers to “not remain complacent, to not live in the shadows.”
It was in that spirit that his supporters repeatedly shouted, “Undocumented, unafraid! Undocumented, unafraid!”