Shirlene Orellana is one of the few mothers in America who is happy her child is behind bars. That’s because her 20-year-old stepson Jaren Rodriguez Orellana, who was detained by U.S. immigration authorities on Monday at the U.S.-Mexico port of entry in Tijuana, was fleeing from the violence of one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
“I’m kind of a naïve person maybe, but at least he’s here,” Orellana said when reached by phone Tuesday evening. “So I think, he’s in the hands of the government. This is the United States, let’s hope for the best.”
Jaren Orellana was part of a group of more than 30 young people organized by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) who crossed the border Monday wearing their high school graduation gowns and turned themselves over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), seeking asylum from the countries where they were born.
The group’s members were all recent residents of the United States. Many had been deported, while others left the U.S. after family members were forcibly removed. The roughly 30 people who crossed the border are now detained together at the San Diego Detention Facility, aside from one man who was deported within 24 hours of being detained, according to NIYA spokesperson Mohammad Abdollahi. Federal immigration officials did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
Many young undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. would be eligible to earn citizenship under the DREAM Act, a proposal that has long been stalled in Congress. In 2012, President Obama announced that his administration would temporarily stop deporting immigrants eligible for relief under the DREAM Act.
The Senate's bipartisan immigration bill contained a version of the DREAM Act, which would have given these immigrants permanent status. But the Republican-controlled House has refused to take up that legislation.
Over the course of the next week, more than 120 asylum seekers are expected to follow the steps of the first group of crossers and surrender themselves to immigration authorities, according to Abdollahi. The action is part of a larger campaign by NIYA, which has organized two prior border crossings under the title “Bring Them Home.”
Jaren’s mother says she’s done everything in her power over the last year and a half to keep her stepson safe and get him home to the United States, the country where he grew up. She’s paid thousands of dollars in lawyers fees and even wired $250 a month to Jaren to pay local gangs, so that they’d “leave him alone.” Despite paying the fee, Jaren was stabbed and shot at while living in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sulas.
While Shirlene Orellana is happy that her stepson is now in custody of the U.S. government, she now faces an entirely different struggle.
“The next step is how do we get him home,” said Orellana, who is thinking of hiring an attorney for Jaren’s case. “Our focus is what do we do now, how do we get him out.”
DREAMers Selene Cortes, 24, and Rai Villalba, 18, are also detained at the same facility as Orellana, according to NIYA. Cortes told Fusion she was deported back to Mexico from Texas in 2009, after immigration authorities stopped her on a Greyhound bus and asked to see her papers.
And Villalba, who left Phoenix, Arizona, after his father was deported, has been assaulted on two occasions in his home state of Hermosillo for identifying with the LGBT community.
The group of DREAMers could face weeks and possibly months of detention, according Sean Riordon of the San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. And that’s if things work out the way they’re hoping they will.
In order to obtain asylum, detainees must first pass something called a credible fear interview, in which migrants are required to prove that they fear for their lives in their countries of birth. After a detainee passes that test, he or she may be released on parole at the discretion of the agency. If he or she fails the credible fear interview, or is deemed a flight risk or a public safety threat, they could be detained for even longer. The agency that oversees the process, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, can take months to execute those interviews.
Editor’s note: Fusion investigative reporter Cristina Costantini spoke with the hosts of Fusion Live about Jaren Orellana and the 30 DREAMers who crossed the border on Monday.
A Ford Foundation grant supports Fusion’s investigative journalism.
Cristina is an Emmy-nominated reporter and producer. She recently won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for her documentary Death by Fentanyl. She attended Yale University and has reported for the New Haven Independent, ABC News, Univision, The Huffington Post, and Fusion.
Jorge Rivas is the national affairs correspondent at Fusion. He follows the national conversation through the lens of racial, sexual, and political identity.