(Update: A federal immigration officer granted Felipe a stay of removal on Feb. 14, according to his lawyer. Felipe is free and back home in Durham, NC, where he will continue to appeal his asylum case.)
DURHAM, North Carolina— Valentine's Day could end in heartbreak for Felipe Molina.
After kissing his boyfriend goodbye at breakfast, the 25-year-old Mexican immigrant will report to the Charlotte ICE Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations to comply with his deportation order.
Felipe was issued a removal notice on Christmas Eve, even though his asylum case is still under appeal in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. His last hope is to convince the ICE director to exercise prosecutorial discretion and issue a stay of removal at the 11th hour, rather than putting him on a plane to Mexico. But he's bringing his suitcase just in case; Felipe knows it could be adios to his boyfriend, his home, his job, and the community where he's tried so hard to make a quiet and honest life for himself.
"The only thing I've ever done here is try to be a good citizen and a good student," says a tearful Felipe, who graduated from Durham's Riverside High School with a 3.8 GPA in 2009. "Now my whole future depends on one person's opinion of me."
Felipe's story is both heart-wrenching and encouraging. It's agonizing because Felipe's life is being held hostage by a broken immigration system that treats undocumented immigrants like criminals. The system has drained all of Felipe's time, money, and energy. Now, after three years of fighting to get legal, the system is threatening to throw him out like garbage, robbing Felipe of his future dreams and potentially sending him back into danger in a country that he fled to escape persecution and violence because of his sexual orientation.
But there's a silver lining to the story. Felipe has helped bring together black, brown and white activists across The Triangle. And he's become somewhat of a poster child for Durham's push to become a sanctuary city. Felipe regularly speaks at rallies, vigils and church gatherings organized by the NAACP and activist group Alerta Migratoria. His voice has helped fuel a growing social justice movement that's determined to hold the line against Donald Trump's government.
"Trump endorses everything that is wrong, but I am also glad that people are fighting back," Felipe told me. "People are learning that they do have a voice."
Felipe doesn't know whether he'll be spared from deportation next week—his lawyer is optimistic that ICE will issue a stay— but he says that the good people of North Carolina who have rallied to his defense have meant the world to him.
"It has kept me really positive to know that people have my back," he says. "Before I thought I was alone. And now people are showing me otherwise."
Graduating without papers
Felipe was born in Guerrero, Mexico, and brought to the U.S. as a kid 17 years ago. He knew he was undocumented while he was in high school, but didn't fully comprehend what that meant until after he graduated in 2009. Felipe says local colleges offered him scholarships because of his good grades, but they were rescinded once the schools learned he didn't have a social security number.
Felipe says he was faced with a difficult choice. "I could try to get a job at McDonald's, or go back to Mexico to study." His mom, who owned a beauty salon in Durham, told Felipe she would pay for his college back in Mexico, so off he went.
A family illness forced Felipe to drop out of school after one semester to find a job after his mom had to sell the beauty salon. It was then that Felipe came out as gay. He says being undocumented taught him the importance of "being true to myself, not hiding, and being open about who I am."
But Felipe was met with violence when he came out of the closet. He says he and his boyfriend were harassed, assaulted, and threatened for holding hands in public. When they turned to the Mexican police for help, Felipe says the cops blamed him for inciting violence by being gay.
Felipe felt alone and scared in Mexico City, so he fled back to the U.S. He tried unsuccessfully to cross the border in 2013, but got caught and deported. He reentered a year later and asked for asylum. After passing his "credible fear" interview—the first step in an asylum case is proving that you are fleeing legitimate danger to seek refuge in the U.S.—he was released on $7,500 bond to go live in Durham with his former high school friend Francisco Vargas, who later became his boyfriend.
After fighting for asylum for three years, Felipe's case was rejected by an immigration judge who has denied asylum requests more than 84% of the time over the past six years, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Now Felipe is hoping he can remain in the country long enough to appeal his case. But even with deportation looming, Felipe is facing the situation bravely. He realizes the importance of standing tall in Trump's America.
"This is not just about me, but all the undocumented families, asylum-seekers, and our Muslim brothers who are being denied entry," Felipe told a group of supporters gathered at a church in Durham last Tuesday night. "This is not about race, immigration status, or color. It's about being human. I'm not just a number. There's a life behind every statistic."