Desperate, immigrants turn to the Internet to fight deportation

Published: Sunday, March 4 2012 9:00 p.m. MST

David Morales gets a hug from Ricardo Ballena after his immigration court hearing in West Valley City in December.

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

It was sunny out and, despite the van's robust air conditioning, the sweat from a half day of heavy landscaping work was forging a creek down Manuel Guerra's neck. The 28-year-old was slouched down in the passenger seat en route to the next job, thumbing through his Twitter feed while the suburbs of Florida zipped by outside his window. A tweet caught his eye: "Big news from the White House on immigration." But he didn't have time to investigate further before his phone started ringing.

He picked up. "Hello?" he said. He stood frozen in place, eyes wide with shock. His coworkers stopped unloading the lawn mowers and stared.

After more than a year in court, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had closed Guerra's case. Though he was living illegally in Indiantown, Fla., he was no longer in danger of being deported to Mexico.

He turned his eyes heavenward and threw up his free arm. "Thank you," he said. "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

Guerra last summer was one of the first to benefit from an Obama administration policy that requires officials to focus on removing illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes and forgo deporting those with clean records and strong ties to the community. In the months since, many illegal immigrants like Guerra have benefited from the policy, dubbed prosecutorial discretion. Hoping to leverage the opportunity, an increasing number of young, tech-savvy illegal immigrants are taking matters into their own hands. Using Change.org, a rapidly growing online platform that supports social campaigns, they are pushing their deportation cases into the spotlight, gathering public support and flooding officials' email inboxes with pleas for prosecutorial discretion. With the help of social media, some Change.org immigration petitions have gathered as many as 40,000 signatures.

There's no way to know how the petitions and the resulting public pressure play into the government's decision to grant — or not grant — reprieve. Despite a lengthy list of guidelines, applying prosecutorial discretion to immigration proceedings is an imprecise art influenced heavily by officials' own backgrounds and biases. But some petitioners have celebrated victory. Encouraged, some immigration attorneys have even begun recommending Change.org to their clients. Examining their stories and how grassroots activism plays out in the courtroom shines light on the gray areas in immigration law enforcement.

"Maybe it helped, maybe it didn't," Guerra said of his decision to publicize his legal woes on the Internet. "At least I did something to try to help myself."

Taking charge

Guerra, who has kind eyes and neatly parted black hair, fled Mexico shortly after he was forced to join a gang that adhered to the motto "kill or be killed," he said. Sixteen years old, he walked to the United States through the mountains of Laredo, Texas, eating corn and grass to survive. After a priest took him in and helped him to learn English and graduate high school, Guerra decided he wanted to become a military chaplain or a priest. But, despite earning a full-ride scholarship, Guerra couldn't enroll in divinity school because he was living in the country illegally. In his quest to fix his status, Guerra inadvertently turned himself into ICE and was thrown into deportation proceedings.

For many years, Guerra kept quiet about his immigration status, but staring deportation down the throat in 2011, he decided he had nothing to lose. He filed a Change.org petition, promoted it on Facebook and within a week he'd gathered 600 signatures. His supporters left encouraging notes for him online and shot emails of support to key government officials.

"I was frustrated that I couldn't go to college and I didn't want to go back to Mexico," Guerra said. "I couldn't just sit back and wait."

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