It’s three months from her wedding day, and Hatciri Lopez is crying beside the chapel.
Her fiancé is locked up, hundreds of miles away in an immigration detention center in Georgia. Standing outside the St. Ann Catholic Church near Clayton, Lopez struggles through her words while fearing the worst.
“I may never see him again,” she says. “He could be deported at any time.”
Authorities came April 11 and arrested her fiancé, Martin Jose Martinez-Nava, a Mexican immigrant who came to the United States illegally at age 14. A judge had convicted Martinez-Nava, now a Durham resident, of drunken driving last month.
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But Lopez says his crime was an anomaly on an otherwise unblemished record of hard work and community service. A young immigrant turned medical assistant herself, Lopez says Martinez-Nava deserves the same chance she had to obtain a legal work permit. She’s recruited hundreds of supporters – family members, friends and immigration activists – who are calling for the release of a man they consider a youth leader and low priority for deportation.
Police arrested the 25-year-old Martinez-Nava on Nov. 1 for driving while impaired. He was coming home from a night out with friends, whom he sometimes hitched a ride home with after drinking too much.
“I guess he thought he had to go back home by himself that night,” Lopez said.
A judge convicted Martinez-Nava on March 17, placing him on three months of probation and ordering him to perform community service. Three weeks ago, authorities returned to Martinez-Nava’s home on Discovery Way and arrested him again.
Three officers asked him to provide proof of citizenship, and he showed them a passport, Lopez said.
“They told him to get dressed, and they said they were going to take him away,” she said.
Vincent Picard, a spokesman with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said ICE detained Martinez-Nava because of his drunken-driving conviction. He’s in custody at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga.
ICE targets immigrants who are charged with crimes while they are in the United States unlawfully. Specifically, the agency focuses on removing “those who pose a threat to public safety” and “repeat immigration violators,” according to its website.
Since 2011, the Obama administration has urged agents to use discretion when pursuing immigrants who came to the United States illegally at a young age. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program gives temporary work permits to young immigrants going to school or serving in the military.
Lopez said Martinez-Nava was applying for deferred action, which is available to immigrants who crossed the border before age 16 and have not been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor.
Martinez-Nava came to the United States from Mexico in 2002. As the oldest of seven siblings, Lopez said, it was his duty to find a way to provide for his family.
“He crossed over undetected, and he has been here ever since,” she said.
After living in Florida for five years, he came to North Carolina for a better job as a construction worker.
The money he makes supports his five sisters, mother and father, who still live in Mexico. His father is ill, Lopez said, and has had two heart attacks in the past six months. He also suffers from diabetes and partial blindness, she said.
“He’s always been responsible and supported the family,” said Ulises Nava, Martinez-Nava’s brother, who also lives in Durham. “This situation is unfair, and I don’t believe he needs to be deported.”
Lopez and Martinez-Nava met in 2010, when the two found a connection through their involvement in Catholic churches throughout the Triangle. They helped facilitate retreats for Latino youth, including the “covenant of love,” which focuses on sex education.
Last fall, Martinez-Nava proposed, and the two plan to marry in July.
Lopez, a 25-year-old Selma resident, was 12 when she immigrated to the United States. Like her fiancé, she was undocumented.
“But thank God I was able to stay in school,” Lopez said. She graduated from North Johnston High School and enrolled at Johnston Community College before transferring to UNC-Chapel Hill. In 2010, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology.
With a temporary work permit through the DACA program, Lopez now works as a medical assistant in a Smithfield doctor’s office.
If her fiancé were to get deported, she said, traveling to Mexico would be difficult, if not impossible.
“I am not allowed to leave the country,” Lopez said. “I am allowed to work and stay here.”
Hundreds of Martinez-Nava’s supporters gathered earlier this month at St. Ann’s, where they prayed, sang hymns and rallied for his release. Lopez directed attendees to an online petition, where they could sign a letter addressed to federal officials.
“This is unjust since aside from a single driving-while-impaired charge on his record, Martin has a clean criminal background,” the letter states.
The N.C. Dream Team, a Raleigh-based group of young activists who fight for ICE detainees, has also taken up Martinez-Nava’s case. It’s one of more than 50 the group has taken on since launching in 2010, said team member Monserrat Mata.
Mata said the group will contact ICE officials and work with immigration attorneys to secure a “win” for Martinez-Nava.
“If they tell us they can stay in this country so their attorney can fight for their case, that’s a win for us,” Mata said.
Picard, the ICE spokesman, said Martinez-Nava will have an opportunity to see an immigration judge and request bond. He’ll also have a chance to make a case for why he should not be deported.
Lopez hopes that’s true.
“He hasn’t hurt anyone or had a crash or anything like that,” she said. “He needs to be here.”