Felipe de Jesus Molina-Mendoza, who first came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 8, learned on Christmas Eve he could be deported Feb. 14 for being in the country illegally.
Molina-Mendoza, 25, a 2009 graduate of Riverside High School, and his supporters, aided by the state NAACP and Alerta Migratoria NC, a Durham-based organization, are fighting the deportation order. They hope federal immigration authorities will grant a stay of removal while he appeals his case in court.
On Tuesday, just before a vigil on his behalf, Molina-Mendoza talked about the deportation order, his return to Mexico where he was harassed because of his sexual orientation and plans to become a nurse.
Molina-Mendoza explained that after he graduated from Riverside High, he returned to Mexico to attend college because he couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition in North Carolina.
In Mexico, Molina-Mendoza said he didn’t hide being gay, which led to taunts, beer bottles being thrown at him and his then boyfriend and threats of rape.
“The only thing they (police) would say was that it was our fault (for being gay),” Molina-Mendoza said of police in Puebla, Mexico, where he lived. “And they would say there was no evidence that we were being harassed or assaulted.”
In 2013, Molina-Mendoza tried to cross the border in Tamaulipas, Texas, only to sign a voluntary deportation because he didn’t think he had any choice.
“They caught me,” he said. “They asked if I was in danger going back to my country. They told me if I said yes I would probably be in jail for three or four years and it was most likely I would still be deported. They encouraged me to sign it.”
Later, he learned about political asylum and decided to try to come to the United States again. This time, in 2014, he went directly to a border crossing gate in Otay Mesa, California.
He said he was detained for three days in a “cooler,” not allowed to bathe or brush his teeth and then sent to a detention center, where he stayed for three months before his family found a U.S. sponsor pending his asylum claim and paid $7,500 for his release.
On Tuesday, an ICE spokesman said Molina-Mendoza is a priority for the agency, which enforces federal immigration laws, because he had already been deported once.
“Felipe de Jesus Molina-Mendoza, an unlawfully present Mexican national who was previously removed from the United States in October of 2013, is an ICE priority as he is subject to a final order of removal issued by a federal immigration judge in March 2016,” spokesman Bryan Cox said. “ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that focuses on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.”
When asked what threat Molina-Mendoza posed, Cox replied “border security” in an email.
Molina-Mendoza, who works as a server at a Chapel Hill restaurant, enrolled at Durham Technical Community College two months ago where he hoped to begin work toward a degree in nursing.
“The main thing when you work in the medical field, you don’t notice race, status or sexual orientation,” he said. “You only notice a human being who needs help.”
Max Carpenter, a friend of Molina-Mendoza, said he has much to offer if he remains in the U.S.
“He really cares about the people in his life and wants to be a nurse,” Carpenter said. “He doesn’t have a criminal record. He’s a model citizen. He’s overall, just a decent human being.”
Molina-Mendoza said he has a temporary work permit that expires in November. But next week he has an appointment with an immigration official that will decide his fate.
So far, Mendoza said his luck hasn’t been great.
For his asylum hearing, he drew Judge Barry J. Pettinato, who has denied 84.5 percent of the asylum requests that have come before him between 2011 and 2016, according to Alerta Migratoria.
“On Feb. 14, I have to present myself to the immigration office in Charlotte,” Molina-Mendoza said, “The sad part is that the decision is up to one immigration officer who gets to decide whether I walk out and return to Durham or get detained.”
He says Mexico is too dangerous to go back.
“Next time it might not be glass and beer bottles; it might be a bullet,” he said. “I don’t want to be a number, a statistic.”