Marco Saavedra makes his case for political asylum

Posted by Tess Waggoner on November 26, 2019 in Blog

When a crowd of reporters swarmed Marco Saavedra ahead of the press conference he had scheduled for the morning of Thursday November 7, 2019, he did what comes naturally to him. He recited poetry:

“Careless seems the great Avenger; history's pages but record          

One death-grapple in the darkness 'twixt old systems and the Word;           

Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—        

Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,  

Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

Minutes away from entering 26 Federal Plaza to make his final case for political asylum in the United States, with hundreds gathering on his behalf, Marco chose to share an excerpt from “The Present Crisis,” a poem by the American abolitionist Fireside poet James Russel Lowell. That he recited a stanza from a poem like that on a day like this is what I might call “3adi,” “classic Marco.” 

I met Marco Saavedra a decade ago at Kenyon College, where we were both students. In the time since we were first acquainted, he has reimagined the limits of activism, not only on behalf of the movement for undocumented Americans’ recognition and dignity, but for the human right of mobility for all people. So last Thursday morning, I answered a call for solidarity put out by his family and community. I went to New York to hold space in public for his cause, and his case, as his hearing was underway.

The asylum he now seeks is, in his own words, the culmination of a series of actions that have sought to shed light on unjust immigration policies that separate families and harm communities. His ability to remain in the United States should not just concern members of his family and community, but all those seeking a more just and humane immigration system.

“You will find shelter”

Following a period of intense activism after he graduated from Kenyon, Marco has worked to support his family at La Morada, the restaurant and community center they own and operate in the South Bronx. As the press conference began large banners were unfurled, and his sisters started passing out tee-shirts. These were hand-painted solidarity messages by community members at a banner-making session held at La Morada at a solidarity event covered by the New York Times dining section

La Morada is a significant place, and not only because the Oaxacan moles they serve have caught the attention of the foodie city. The name, La Morada, has a dual meaning, referencing both the purple walls and the Bible verse that the family embraced when deciding to open the restaurant: En la casa de mi padre muchas moradas hay; In my father’s house, you will find shelter” (John 14:12). The New York Times explains, “Through La Morada, open since 2009, the family has fought gentrification, deportations and what they see as unjustified arrests. On its website, La Morada described itself as “undocumented-family owned.” 

The family is cognizant of the role the restaurant leverages- and the vulnerability it requires- to be so open about their activism and their mixed immigration status. It is precisely this hyper-visibility which further endangers Marco and his family-- not only against targeting by the U.S. system-- but in Mexico as well. His membership in specific social categories, including his status as a Mixtec indigenous person, and his Episcopalian faith, dramatically increases the possibility of targeted violence if he is deported. 

Facing discrimination and persecution for their ethnic heritage and religious identity, the Saavedra family sought a better life for their children in Washington Heights over two decades ago. In their new home, they have fostered and nourished a proud community through their entrepreneurial ingenuity and selfless commitment to social justice. They are now a family trying to remain together. 

“I just don’t believe in peace for myself if that doesn’t exist for everyone.”

What had been scheduled as a three-hour rally evolved into a day-long action as the judge, Sam Factor, continued granting witnesses to testify in the hearing. Witnesses included three anthropologists who spoke on his activism and the threats facing human rights activists in Mexico, as well as two character witnesses. 

At eleven a.m. on November 7th, someone came and told us that it was Marco’s turn to testify. His sister Carolina stood in front of the crowd assembled at the steps of the fountain at Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan. Holding the youngest Saavedra in her arms, she told us, “Marco is testifying right now, so we’re going to hold him in the light and we’re going to say the chant that got him into this fight: Un-doc-u-men-ted”

“UN-A-FRAID,” the crowd cried back in response. Undocumented, unafraid. Undocumented, unafraid. 

Just as many of the earliest Arab Americans have been caught between their national identities and the evolving nation-state reality of their homelands in the early 1900s and since, the story of undocumented America has never been the burden of one particular ethnic community. I was so proud to watch Dr. James Zogby use poetry in a recent speech to pay tribute to his father’s undocumented legacy and our nation’s response: amnesty. 

As Marco described the legacy of his activism in an interview with Democracy Now! ahead of the hearing, he looked to history and drew connections between the targeting of various communities historically and the current immigration crisis, saying,

“... We had to come to the table at some point and say, ‘If you’re going to continue doing this, at least give some sort of relief beyond DACA,’ which Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was only an administrative measure, which now is being heard in the Supreme Court because President Trump has done the worst, our worst fear, which is, tried to strip us of deferred action.

 “And this has been the only victory in a quarter-century, since 1986 amnesty. So, we still have 11 million undocumented immigrants with any lack — with lack of protection in this country, and assaulted by President Trump on the daily. Maybe he doesn’t have the record number of deportations because he’s focused so much of his efforts on just stopping asylees(sic) from even coming into the country. But we know that he’s just built on this enforcement that has, you know, started well before that, before — you could even look at the Clinton years with the 1996 anti-immigrant laws and the Bush years of forming ICE after 9/11 and really going after immigrants during the “war on terror.” And this has just escalated during my lifetime.” 

In his hearing that morning, Marco reportedly told Judge Sam Factor, “I just don’t believe in peace for myself if that doesn’t exist for everyone.” His brave and selfless actions to raise awareness of the plights of those seeking refuge here have clearly demonstrated this belief. Marco knew the potential consequences when he engaged in direct action and civil disobedience as a young man, and I am confident he knew the end of “The Present Crisis,” the poem he read to reporters the morning of his asylum hearing. I offer the final stanza of that poem as a postscript, toward the work that remains in advocating fair and just immigration policies that honor the dignity and worth of each human life.

“New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;         

They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth;     

Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires! we ourselves must Pilgrims be,           

Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,

Nor attempt the Future's portal with the Past's blood-rusted key.”

Those of us advocating for a more humane immigration system must insist that policymakers set aside “the past’s blood-rusted key” so that “We the People” live free. 

Post photograph credit: Steve Pavey