Felipe de Jesus Molina Mendoza’s life hinged on a less-than-15-minute long meeting with with a federal immigration officer Tuesday.
He would either be allowed to stay in the U.S., the country he has known most of his life. Or he’d be sent to Mexico, and possibly killed because of his sexuality, Molina Mendoza said.
After the meeting – a regular check-in for his deportation order – the undocumented immigrant walked out of a Department of Homeland Security office on Tyvola Centre Drive with his attorney. He smiled and raised his hands in the air.
Molina Mendoza was free – at least for now.
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“I was supposed to be deported today ... and that didn’t happen,” he said. “I’m really happy. This is wonderful news.”
A crowd of roughly 15 friends, supporters and activists cheered in the parking lot. With them was Francisco Vargas Guadalupe, Molina Mendoza’s boyfriend.
“This is the best (Valentine’s Day) gift I could have ever received,” Vargas Guadalupe said.
Vargas Guadalupe and Molina Mendoza met at Durham’s Riverside High School. Molina Mendoza said he returned to Mexico to attend college but was harassed and threatened for being openly gay.
So he tried re-entering to the U.S. in 2013 but was deported. A year later, the 25-year-old restaurant server tried again, this time seeking political asylum as he crossed into California.
In 2016, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ordered him to leave the country. He protested the order and is currently awaiting a ruling from the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
That, Molina Mendoza said, is why the ICE official allowed him to stay Tuesday. He said he’d have to check back in with ICE in March but was optimistic about that meeting, as well.
Molina Mendoza does not have a criminal history. He was targeted by ICE because he’d already been deported once, supporters said Tuesday.
In a release, ICE said an operation last week led to the arrest of 190 undocumented immigrants in Georgia and the Carolinas.
Nearly 130 had criminal convictions in addition to their illegal status and about 30 had been removed from the U.S. previously but returned to the country.
Agency officials said ICE does not conduct “sweeps, checkpoints or raids that target aliens indiscriminately.”
Despite the assurance, Molina Mendoza and others said there is fear in the immigrant community. The fear has increased, since President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration.
His Jan. 25 order broadly defines those who should be deported.
“We cannot faithfully execute the immigration laws of the United States if we exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” it says. “The purpose of this order is to direct executive departments and agencies to employ all lawful means to enforce the immigration laws of the United States.”
But Tuesday was a victory, Molina Mendoza’s supporters said..
“It’s a wonderful feeling to walk out of that office with Felipe,” said his attorney Helen Parsonage said. “We live to fight another day.”