Felipe Molina Mendoza is trying to maintain his composure.
It's an unseasonably warm Tuesday evening in February, and dozens of people are crowded into the pews of Durham's Monument of Faith Church. Molina Mendoza, wearing jeans and a crisp plum-colored dress shirt, stands behind a mahogany lectern. Nearby, his boyfriend Francisco, in the same jeans-and-plum-shirt uniform, looks on encouragingly.
"I think the first thing I want to say is thank you," Molina Mendoza begins. "I was already getting emotional, to be honest, beforehand. This is because I see how much support I have from you guys." His voice begins to waver. "To take time from your lives to come here and support me means a lot to me."
He pauses, gulps, looks up.
"We love you, Felipe," a voice offers.
The crowd breaks into applause. Molina Mendoza cracks a smile.
The church is packed with nearly one hundred weary faces, far more than Molina Mendoza expected. The support has been overwhelming—hugs and messages from strangers, kind words from old teachers and friends. Last week, two young girls cried with him at a rally in downtown Raleigh. The tears have come easily these past few months.
"I cry more than I've ever cried in my entire life," he told the INDY the next morning. "But overall I try to keep calm."
That's his mantra these days: deep breaths, stay calm. It's not easy considering the circumstances. The twenty-five-year-old is living in Durham, where he went to high school, on borrowed time—and in a matter of months, his time could be up.
Two years ago, Molina Mendoza applied for political asylum in the United States, claiming to have suffered homophobic abuse in his native Mexico. His application was heard—and denied—in an immigration court in Charlotte last year. Molina Mendoza's supporters say the decision was based more on the luck of the draw than the merits of his case: his judge, Barry J. Pettinato, denied almost 85 percent of the asylum requests that came before him between 2011 and 2016, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. By comparison, the national denial rate is 49.8 percent.
Until late last week, Molina Mendoza expected to be deported on Valentine's Day. (He learned about his pending deportation on Christmas Eve.) But on Thursday he heard that, thanks in part to the intervention of U.S. Representative G.K. Butterfield, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had postponed his removal until his appeal is heard by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, probably later this year.
But Molina Mendoza still had to report to immigration court in Charlotte Tuesday, and despite the apparent reprieve, his court appearance was shot through with anxiety.
"There is a high chance of me being detained on Tuesday," he told the INDY last week. "My lawyer said the fear is there's a chance that they may try to detain you that day and keep you there."
That didn't happen. Molina Mendoza wasn't apprehended on Tuesday morning. He was allowed to go back home to Durham and told to check in with ICE in March.
Now it's back to waiting, back to studying to become a nurse at Durham Tech, back to wondering what will happen next.
Molina Mendoza's story is a case study in the many ways misfortune can imperil an immigrant's quest for security and stability, particularly in a system that often seems capricious and arbitrary. He came of age in a state ungenerous toward undocumented immigrants and left the country before the Obama administration rolled out a program that would have afforded him relief. He came out as a gay man in a city that was, at least in pockets, openly hostile to his very existence, and when he tried to return home, he ended up before a judge who decided that the hostility wasn't that big of an obstacle.
Every step of the way, Molina Mendoza's case holds up a mirror to our current immigration system—and perhaps serves as a harbinger of what's to come under a Trump administration that has declared itself atavistically antagonistic to undocumented immigrants and promised to deport millions of them, painting those here illegally as dangerous criminals and job-stealing leeches.
To those who would see him sent back, Molina Mendoza pleads: "Try not to view me as just a number. Try to see exactly what makes me me, what makes me a human."