SALT LAKE CITY — David Morales was on a Greyhound bus near Las Cruces, N.M., when Border Patrol agents stopped the bus for a routine check.
Morales, 21, rose up and informed his fellow passengers of their rights. That landed him in detention for nine hours before immigration agents decided to cut him loose.
The experience, he says, was his inspiration for developing an app to inform undocumented people of their rights in wide array of scenarios ranging from a traffic stops by city police officer to a workplace raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
"I can't be on every bus, but I can make something that can," Morales said.
The app, Derechos Herencia, which roughly translates as "inherited rights," is available for smartphone and tablet users.
"I want to make it available to everyone who has questions about immigration," he said.
Morales, who is an illegal immigrant, spent 17 days in jail following a previous encounter with immigration agents on another bus ride when he was 19. He was en route to a Bible college in Louisiana when agents boarded the bus for a routine enforcement check.
When agents asked him if he was a U.S. citizen, Morales told them he was not, and he was held in a detention center to await deportation proceedings.
He was released after his family posted a $4,000 bond. He was eventually granted administrative relief, which he believes was aided by the signatures of 15,000 people who supported him.
The app has a feature to create online petitions on behalf of people facing deportation.
Two lawyers have vetted the content of the app to ensure its accuracy, Morales said. The app is intended to be an educational resource for undocumented people in advance of encounters with local, state or federal authorities.
"It's kind of like the Mexican ACLU," he said.
Morales, who plans to become a Christian minister and possibly attend law school, is also a plaintiff in the ongoing legal challenge to HB497, Utah's immigration enforcement law passed by the Legislature in 2011.
Aside from dealing with the possibility of being deported and being part of a federal court challenge over the constitutionality of a Utah law, the reality of his undocumented status hit home when his grandmother died of cancer in Mexico, and he and his family members were not able to comfort her before she died or attend her funeral.
"My mom left her mother to give me and my brothers a better life," said Morales, who has lived in Utah since he was 9.
While Morales said he is optimistic that Congress will take up immigration reform, his family is much like other families in Utah. They have mixed immigration status, and different family members encounter a wide variety of challenges.
Morales' sisters are undocumented, but both are married to U.S. citizens. His parents are undocumented, and his younger brother is a "Dreamer" — young people brought to the United States as children by undocumented parents.
The brother of his brother-in-law was arrested at his home five years ago after slipping away from his workplace while federal agents were conducting a raid.
"That was the last time I saw him," Morales said.
"Every scenario that changes affects me in some way."
Morales said he relies on faith to endure the trials that he and his family have faced.
To followers of Jesus Christ, the questions over how to address illegal immigration boil down to this, Morales says: "Are we really doing what Christ wants us to do?"6 comments on this story
Mostly, Morales doesn't want anyone else to endure the stress and fear of being incarcerated over an immigration matter.
He also hopes he can further understanding that people, regardless of their immigration status, have the same needs and dreams.
"At the end of the day, we are all human. We all want the same things. We want to feel welcomed, appreciated and loved," Morales said. "If we can't give that to one another, what hope do we have?"