After living in the United States for 28 years, Kenyon graduate and immigration activist Marco Saavedra ’11 won his case for political asylum on Feb. 4, 2021, a monumental victory for undocumented activists across the nation.
This news comes after a lengthy legal process for Saavedra. His final hearing — which spanned an entire day — took place on Nov. 7, 2019, but the judges were given an additional three months to mull over his case. This initial three-month-long debate turned into a yearlong process with the onset of the pandemic, the end of former President Donald Trump’s presidency and the publicity of Saavedra’s case. This February, over a year after the November hearing, Saavedra was finally granted asylum.
“This [decision] lifts a huge weight off my shoulders,” Saavedra told the Collegian.
In 2020, immigration judges decided the second highest number of asylum cases within the last two decades, despite the partial court shutdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, according to official immigration reports, fewer than 20% of Mexican immigrants are granted political asylum in the United States.
Saavedra’s family left Mexico for the United States in 1993, when he was just 3 years old. He grew up in Washington Heights, N.Y., and came to Kenyon on a full scholarship. Saavedra began his work as an activist after he took a semester off during his junior year at Kenyon. He travelled to Washington, D.C., where he met Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and learned about their fight for citizenship.
Saavedra graduated from Kenyon in 2011 after receiving the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award and the Jane Addams Service Award in Sociology. Shortly thereafter, he went on to work with the DACA recipients, organizing protests, starting important conversations about getting documented and helping others find their voice.
“[My activism came] at the climax of the DREAM Act movement. A lot of us had become super active during Obama’s first presidency, and we were hoping that the Obama administration would grant, as promised, the DREAM Act within his first 100 days in office,” Saavedra told DemocracyNow. “But what we were seeing was a record number of 400 [thousand] deportations every year, which amounts to over two million over his eight years in office.”
In 2012, Saavedra planned for his public arrest at the Broward Transitional Center after lying about his documentation status, with the intention of organizing people from within the Center. While there, he secured the release of dozens of immigrants. After 23 days in the Center, Saavedra self-deported back to Mexico in 2013 to connect with other DACA recipients across the border. He and a group of DACA recipients wore graduation outfits in solidarity with the two million undocumented immigrants who were eligible for the DREAM Act, but still could not live permanently in their home country.
In 2017, Kenyon professors and students alike wrote letters of support for Saavedra’s case. R. Todd Ruppert Professor of International Studies Jennifer Johnson, who served as Saavedra’s academic advisor during his time at Kenyon, was one of them. She spoke fondly of the impact he left on the Kenyon community, saying that both she and her family were “elated” when they found out about the news of Saavedra’s asylum.
“I really think that he is almost single-handedly responsible for the conversations that have happened on this campus about immigration,” she said. “Before Marco had the courage to tell his story to the campus community, and then continue to raise awareness through his protest actions, I don’t think this conversation would be as far along as it is today.”
Royal Rhodes, former Donald L. Rogan professor emeritus of religious studies, also wrote a letter on Saavedra’s behalf. In his letter, he spoke about the impact Saavedra had on his own life; in fact, knowing Saavedra was one of the reasons he added a component to one of his religious studies courses on the Mexican Day of the Dead. In an interview with the Collegian, Rhodes said that Saavedra always put others before himself. “He didn’t personalize [his struggles],” Rhodes said. “It was always about struggles for groups of people. He’s so community-minded — a reminder that there’s hope for others.”
Saavedra expressed gratitude for the Kenyon community throughout his long journey, citing the warmth and genuineness of his professors during his time at the College. He was especially touched by the Kenyon students who came to his asylum hearing last November.
“The fact that there was a Kenyon student caravan that drove overnight to my case… that was overwhelmingly beautiful,” he said.
He noted that as much as the decision of his case was a personal victory, it was also important to put his success in perspective with fights around the world.
“Sometimes it feels like we don’t see our domestic fights within the global perspective, when everything is interconnected,” Saavedra said. “[I hope that] others, who are in concrete danger right now, for their justice work, can find some form of relief because of this. That’s why I started to do this work.”