Today, Clarisa Mesta joined the ranks of undocumented immigrants who have successfully stopped their deportations after speaking publicly about their cases. Before her hearing in Denver's immigration court this afternoon, the mother of three addressed a small crowd gathered on the sidewalk.
"My name is Clarisa Mesta," she said into a portable microphone. "I am in the process of deportation."
Mesta, a native of Mexico, wound up in deportation proceedings after being pulled over in November 2011.
Her offense? Driving on a mountain road with her brights on. When the officer figured out she was using a false license, she was arrested.
"I was in jail for two days," recalls Mesta, who came to the United States in 2001 to seek a better life for herself and her family. Eventually, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- known as ICE -- came to pick her up. The immigration authorities gave her a choice: leave the U.S. voluntarily or have a judge look at her case. She chose the latter. After paying a $5,000 bond, Mesta was released to await her court date.
At first, Mesta was ashamed and hid the fact that she was facing deportation from her extended family. She hired an attorney, who didn't give her much hope that she could stay here with her husband and children, ages seventeen, eleven and three.
But one day last fall, Mesta's mother-in-law heard an announcement on the radio for a hotline for immigrants who'd been racially profiled. Through the hotline, Mesta connected with Jessy Perez, who ran the hotline for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition with the aim of repealing Colorado's so-called "show me your papers" law.
Many of the people who called the hotline were facing the same problem as Mesta; they'd been pulled over, reported to ICE and were now in deportation proceedings. Perez realized that she couldn't just collect their stories and not help them, so she and others began assisting individual immigrants in fighting their deportation cases. Mesta was one of them.
Speaking with Perez and meeting other immigrants in the same situation gave Mesta hope.
"I realized that I'm not the only one going through all of this," she says. "It's good because we started getting connected and we learn about telling our stories without shame. It is still hurtful because I keep thinking, How did this happen to me? The only thing I've done is to work. We know that we're not here legally but we don't do anything wrong, either."
Advocates started a petition asking ICE to grant Mesta prosecutorial discretion, which means her deportation case would be closed. Mesta also reached out to several Colorado lawmakers, including Senator Michael Bennet and Representatives Jared Polis and Diana DeGette, asking them to intervene in her case. She and her family even traveled to Washington, D.C. with the Fair Immigration Reform Movement organization.
Today, as Mesta waited to go before an immigration judge, she hoped all of her advocacy had worked. "While Congress debates the immigration reform bill, we people in removal proceedings need a response right now," she said into the microphone as her family stood by her side. "My children," she added, "that's why I'm here."
Mesta's hearing ended up lasting just a few minutes. Her attorney and the attorney for ICE presented the judge with a joint motion to administratively close her case; Mesta had been granted prosecutorial discretion, after all. The judge quickly signed off on it.
"Good luck to you, ma'am," he said.
Mesta's family quietly filed out of the courtroom and once outside, boisterously kissed and hugged each other in celebration. Clutching the judge's order, Mesta posed for a photograph. "Happy, happy, happy," she said when asked how she was feeling. "We did it."
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More from our Immigration archive: "Immigration bill: How would reform measure affect those in deportation proceedings?"Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org