Marco Saavedra is an artist, poet, writer, and sometime-dishwasher at his parents’ restaurant in the Bronx. He’s also an undocumented immigrant and one of nine Dreamers who, in 2013, turned themselves over to border patrol at Nogales, AZ to lift up the plight of two million deported immigrants under the Obama administration. The previous year he had put himself in the hands of Florida immigration agents to infiltrate the Broward Detention Facility and expose the abuses occurring there. Dozens of detainees were released as a result. Today Saavedra’s deportation case is still pending, but he continues to make art, to voice protest, and to lift up the urgency of the lives of those around him. He speaks with us today about how faith has influenced his actions past and present, and how the current debate over immigration is not simply a matter of politics, but rather a matter of the spirit.
By purposefully placing yourself in the hands of border guards, you could have been deported to Mexico, a place you haven’t been since you were a baby. How did your faith impact your decision to take such a personal and possibly life-altering risk?
Yes, of course, faith has always been crucial in my migration journey. The last words I said before turning myself over to border patrol two years ago were: “There is no fear where there is perfect love” (to loosely quote St. John), and I meant that. And to go further into my past, faith was the only thing left after my parents and I first came into this country illegally 20 years ago; we had already left behind our language, native home, extended family, culture and everything known until that point. Our migration started (as I believe most all do) with faith and was sustained by it. And so when I turned myself over to immigration 20 years later—in order to raise up the plight of the deported—it was only adding to that faith that instructs us to “love one another as [Jesus] has loved us” (John 13:34).
Is social justice activism of this extent the province of the young? What about the middle-aged, the old, those with small children, aging parents, etc. Do the social justice teachings of Jesus require such action from these folks as well? Why/why not?
What I see in my community is folks taking risks ALL THE TIME, of all ages and at all levels—sometimes by faith alone—to survive in this country and provide for their families. What we’ve begun to develop is a consciousness that recognizes that driving without a license, working without permits or false papers, crossing and re-crossing borders are all forms of civil disobedience because, to quote Dr. King quoting St. Augustine, “an unjust law is no law at all.” I think that as immigrant dreamer youth we have been put in positions of privilege to perform these higher profile actions that then advance our agenda further, but the community has already paved the way.
Our position is akin to Moses or the youth in Babylonian captivity (Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) who are privy to insider knowledge on how the empire works, and also witness to the cry of the outsiders since we are “bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh” of those who live in the shadows (to quote DuBois quoting Genesis). Indeed, if we forget to witness the great sacrifices made by own our community “may our right hand forget its cunning and our tongue cleave to the roof of our mouth” if we do not maintain that “our chief joy” (from Psalms 137). Of course, Jesus is born to a people under Roman captivity and perfects the prophetic calling to:
Proclaim good news to the poor. Proclaim liberty to the captives . . .
Set to liberty those who are oppressed (from Luke 4:18)
What has the outcome been of your own deportation case, which came about after your 2012 arrest?
Right, so I first turned myself into immigration agents in the summer of 2012 to expose the abuses happening in Broward Transitional Center. We were able to secure the release of dozens of detainees. After being kicked out of the detention center because of the publicity we garnered, I continued my case before Judge Bain in New York, where I was offered Deferred Action. I turned it down, claiming “I had done nothing wrong when I crossed the border at age three” and therefore did not think that the burden of providing relief should be on me but on the government.
The following summer (2013), I self-deported to Mexico to reconnect with dreamers who hadn’t been able to qualify for Deferred Action because they had either been deported or self-deported prior to its announcement. Again, we leveraged the press and advocacy networks to make our request for asylum based on credible fear even more powerful, and were paroled into the country after two weeks in detention. All nine of us are now waiting on the outcome of our asylum petition. My final court date will be in the summer of 2017 and in the meantime I’m eligible for a work permit.
On January 27th, House Speaker John Boehner announced that he will take legal action against the Obama administration to challenge President Obama’s executive action on immigration. How is this anything but political suicide for Republicans given the increasing numbers of Latino voters?
I would be wary to consider it political suicide given that voters are very forgetful of most issues except for the economy, and Republicans have mastered the discourse of neoliberal economics by blaming the poor. Undocumented immigrants like any other disenfranchised group will find it hard to raise our plight in this upcoming election cycle, and perhaps that shouldn’t be the goal. Here I turn to St. Paul’s call to not be conformed to patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewal of our minds. In that same letter, St. Paul implores the church to “share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13). Radical hospitality that would even feed one’s enemy (Romans 12:20), and provide relief for their suffering. My undocumented people have been chosen to prevent Republicans from an even deeper spiritual suicide.
What role will immigration play in the 2016 election?
I really do not know and to a certain extent the question is almost meaningless because one has to choose between a spineless Democratic party that has seen the largest number of deportations by any president (here one must remember that the recent executive actions do not provide a pathway to citizenship, but mainly puts one at the end of the line for deportation), and an equally unchristian Republican party that places national interest over divine grace. So the only alternative is to lift up the urgency of our lives, saying: No more deportations, no more family separation, no more criminalization of people of color, STUDY WAR NO MORE. We must vote our conscious every day and choose to follow the Prince of Peace and not the god of war. We must be challenged every day to let God’s will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Beyond what happens in 2016, churches have a biblical mandate to offer sanctuary to the persecuted; a timeless mandate that equates civil disobedience with moral obedience. To welcome the strangers around us for by doing so “some have entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2).
I invite you to take the pilgrimage with the immigrant towards Zion, towards our heavenly home.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Marco Saavedra has engaged faith-footed action as a 21st-Century Freedom Rider. Learn about how you can join this year’s 21st-Century Freedom Ride.