By Sarah Lehr
In August 2011, Marco Saavedra ’11 was arrested. Saavedra, whose parents came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was five years old, “came out” as an undocumented youth and allowed himself to be detained at the Broward Transitional Center of Pompano Beach, Florida. Once inside the center, Saavedra and other activists collected data in order to expose U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s failure to suspend deportation for people who would qualify under new guidelines put forth by President Obama’s administration. Before his talk in the Gund Gallery on Oct. 3, Saavedra sat down with the Collegian.
How did your time at Kenyon shape your direction in life?
Kenyon was fundamental. It’s heavenly to be back on such a beautiful fall day. Sometimes I think I idealize my time here and forget the bad parts.
What were some of those bad parts?
I experienced bouts of depression. I wouldn’t want to eat, get out of bed or shower. Everyone is freaked out about what they’ll do after Kenyon, but I was even more so because I knew I didn’t have a Social Security card or a driver’s license. I was so afraid about being deported.
How did people react once you started telling them you were undocumented?
One of my biggest mentors was the chaplain Carl Stephens. He’s in Columbus now. After my roommate, he was the second person I told I was an undocumented immigrant. I started telling other people when I came back to Kenyon my senior year after spending a semester at Georgetown [University]. The reaction was super friendly and hospitable, unlike the reaction I had feared.
Did you ever feel alienated at Kenyon because of your background?
Yes and no. I’ve always felt alienated. I grew up in a New York City neighborhood that was largely Dominican and I’m Mexican. Even though Dominicans and Mexicans are both Latino, the cultures are so different. Then I went to Deerfield Boarding School on scholarship. I’ve always been the one Mexican.
When did you decide to do something about immigration reform?
Initially, it was selfish. I just wanted to know as many advocates as possible so I could know the best course of action if I or someone in my family ever got involved with deportation proceedings. But then, it became more about community and looking out for other folks who didn’t have that luxury to be in Washington, D.C. lobbying or to be at an institution like Kenyon.
What was your experience at the Broward Transitional Center in Florida like?
It’s hard for me to talk about it because I’ve repressed some of it. I was there for three weeks, and I learned a lot. I think that my experiences at Kenyon and at boarding school kind of prepared me. I don’t want to make that comparison in a nasty way because it was totally different in most ways, but it was the experience of a complete, closed-off institution. People talk about the Kenyon bubble. We were able to talk to over a hundred families that had relatives detained and we were able to secure the release of about four dozen people. It’s been the most successful infiltration so far, and that’s largely due to the work of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, and I think it’s due to the mentality from the outside of being undocumented and unafraid.
What surprised you most about Broward?
Broward is particular because it’s for folks who don’t even have criminal records, and if they do, it’s minor infractions, like traffic or fishing violations. Physically, it’s not very oppressive. There are no locks on your [individual] doors even though you’re enclosed in this building. The relationships with the guards are usually friendly because a private company hires them — they aren’t immigration agents. I feel that the oppression is more insidious. The oppression might take the form of outside priests coming in and telling us that we were in the wrong. There’s also some cases of detainees pitting themselves against each other and trying to determine who’s friendlier with the guards by reporting things like who’s planning to do a workers’ strike. Another striking thing was how brutal the judge was. Judge [Rex J.] Ford, the only presiding judge at the facility, is one of the top 10 worst immigration judges, and that’s determined by data kept at Syracuse [University]. He denies asylum in the vast majority of his cases.
Whose stories stick out to you from your time at Broward?
I was very much shepherded by this man named Claudio Rojas who had previously been detained there with his son. His first question for me was, “What are you doing here? How could your mom let you be here?” As a dad, that was instinctively his first reaction. I think that the immigrants who were detained with me cared for me so much. Even though I had a lot of safeguards, I think they were more worried for me sometimes than about their own cases.
Does your family worry about your activism?
They’ve always been guarded, but they were especially worried when I went back to Mexico and asked for asylum in the U.S. But at the same time they were so supportive. My mom and dad did so many media interviews. Now, I’m ready to transition into less rigorous activist work, so that makes my family more comfortable. My primary passions are painting and writing, and I’m thinking about getting a masters in theology.
How do you feel about the Obama administration’s record on immigration?
I think they’re almost condescending to the immigrant community. I think they have done referendums and even Deferred Action [for Childhood Arrivals] when their back’s against the wall when they think they aren’t getting enough Latino votes. While Obama has expressed hopes about immigration reform, even George W. Bush put political power behind promoting it. The Obama administration has tried to appeal to immigrants while, at the same time, has deported and detained people at historically high rates.
Do you ever feel like you have to sacrifice your privacy for your activism?
I do, and it can be unhealthy sometimes. But I’m privileged because I have a supportive family and I have a church that’s nurturing, so I have retreat spaces. One thing that I’m starting to be more wary of is how judgmental activists can be of people outside of activism, which is why I’m more comfortable identifying as an artist.
[starbox id=”Sarah Lehr”]