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 overwhelminghugs 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 timeand 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 heardand deniedin 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 systemand 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.”


Molina Mendoza’s journey to America began in the dead of night, somewhere along the Mexico-Arizona border. Under the cobalt September sky, an eight-year-old Felipe ran past farms, cows, and hills. The heat was dizzying. His mom and two older sisters were there, too, but his dad was back in Mexico. They were escaping him. He’d hidden the kids from their mom for two years after a custody battle. When she’d found them, she told them, “Get your stuff, get everything, let’s go,” Molina Mendoza recalls.

They wasted no time. A few days later, they were at the border.

They left home in a hurry, and Molina Mendoza darted out the door without thinking about what he was wearing. It was only when they started crossing the pitch-black border that he remembered he had on light-up sneakers. The moment his feet pounded they ground, they started blinking.

“We all forgot,” Molina Mendoza says. “At the time, my mom just stopped me and was like, ‘Pull your pants down,’ and she tied the end of my pants over my shoes.”

When they got to the States, they moved to Queens, New York. Molina Mendoza was dazzled by the skyline, the colors, the people. Mexico’s searing heat bothered him, so the crisp weather was a welcome change. When the first snow blanketed the city, Molina Mendoza and his sisters were in awe. “We went crazy,” he says.

Three years later, they joined Molina Mendoza’s uncle in North Carolina. His new school didn’t have ESL classes or Spanish instruction. Molina Mendoza mainly learned English by watching TV. His favorite show was Pokémon, which explains the bright yellow Pikachu piñata sitting on a table in his living room. He enrolled in Durham’s Riverside High. At first he hated it, because he thought it looked like a hospital, but he eventually adjusted. He joined chorus, took honors classes, and made friends.

He also met his current boyfriend, Francisco, a fellow student. They became close, though they didn’t date until much later. “Even though it’s only been a few months since I’ve known you, you’re a good friend,” Molina Mendoza wrote in Francisco’s yearbook. “You’re fun to hang around with, and I hope you have a good life wherever you go to.”

That lighthearted earnestness is textbook Felipe, and it’s helped win him lots of alliesso many that Butterfield, a Democrat who represents part of Durham, sent a letter to ICE last week asking to delay Molina Mendoza’s removal because, he wrote, “my office has been inundated with positive messages over the past several weeks from the Durham community.”

Despite his mostly cheery exterior now, Molina Mendoza felt like “a second-class citizen” as an undocumented student at Riverside. He was quiet in class and always sat near the back of the room. But he looked forward to working on projects, especially those that put his crafting skills to use. Matt Smith, Molina Mendoza’s junior year AP English teacher, still uses one of those projectsa pop-up picture book Molina Mendoza madeas an example of satire for a unit on humor.

“I have a little flipbook of his in my file cabinet,” Smith says. “It’s something I still pull out, as an example of a good piece of work. It was a criticism of how accessible violent media is to children. It was a funny piece, but it also understood so many nuanced levels of media. It’s a really powerful piece.”

Recently, Molina Mendoza returned to Riverside to talk about his case with Wildin Acosta, an undocumented Riverside student who was detained on his way to school last year. (Acosta was later released from a private detention facility in Georgia after posting a bond while awaiting his appeal; he, too, is seeking asylum after fleeing gang violence in his native Honduras.) Smith couldn’t help but think about the picture book when Acosta introduced Molina Mendoza.

“All I could think about was, one hundred yards from him speaking about his deportation, I have a little flipbook of his in my file cabinet. And that it has stayed with me ever since. He has gone through so much since then …” Smith trails off. “I can’t even imagine.”


When Molina Mendoza moved to North Carolina, he was part of a wave of immigrants reshaping the state’s demography. Between 1990 and 2013, the immigrant population in North Carolina swelled by 551 percent, to an estimated 750,000, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Many of them were Latino. According to the Pew Research Center, Latinos comprise about 9 percent of the state’s population, about 890,000 people.

Of those 750,000 immigrants, the MPI estimates, about 350,000 are undocumented. Mexico and Central America account for more than 80 percent of the state’s undocumented population, with 61 percent coming from Mexico alone. The undocumented population makes up about 5 percent of the state’s labor force, the Pew Research Center estimates. Of that group, almost one-quarter work in construction, the MPI says, and nearly one in five work in the service industry. Another 7 percent work in agriculture. (Peter Daniel, the assistant to the president of the N.C. Farm Bureau, estimates that 70–80 percent of the state’s farmworkers are undocumented.)

“The Latino and immigrant community are building the economy of this state. And yet these are the very people that are being villainized,” says Ana Ilarraza-Blackburn, the Latino liaison for the N.C. NAACP. “It’s inhumane, and that’s not what our democracy is about. That’s not what we stand for in this country.”

Last year, then-governor Pat McCrory signed a law prohibiting municipalities from becoming sanctuary cities, barring government agencies and law enforcement officials from accepting ID cards issued by foreign governments, and expanding employers’ use of the E-verify program. Additionally, under state law, undocumented students are ineligible for in-state college tuition and instead have to pay the pricier out-of-state rate. (At UNC-Chapel Hill, tuition and fees for full-time in-state undergrads amount to $8,898 a year; for out-of-state students, $34,588.)

Molina Mendoza learned that higher education would not come easy while inside his college counselor’s office at Riverside, filling out applications.

“She asked me, ‘What’s your Social Security number?’ and I was like, ‘Well I don’t have one,” he says. “And then she said, ‘They all require a social. If you don’t have a social, you can’t apply for them.’ At the moment, I knew I didn’t have papers, but I didn’t know the impact of how big that was until then. I kept it hidden from everybody.”

Molina Mendoza’s mom gave him an ultimatum: get a job and give up his dream of going to college, or go back to Mexico where college was more affordable. He chose the latter.

“It wasn’t easy. I cried a lot,” he says. “It was the first time I was ever away from my family. I was leaving my friends, my future here.”

In September 2009, Molina Mendoza hailed a bus in North Carolina. He arrived in Mexico several days later. He was struck by the changing scenery as he crossed back over the border. On the U.S. side, houses were well-painted and modern, the roads smooth; in Mexico, homes were weathered and run down. Dirt roads proliferated.

He soon found a place to live in Mexico City and enrolled in music school for audio engineering. The next year, he made another fateful choice: he decided to come out to his friends and family. It was a long time coming. Molina Mendoza had known about his sexual orientation since the early days of high school, though he chose not to tell anyone about it.

He wasn’t sure how his family would take itgrowing up, his stepfather, whom his mother met in North Carolina, often made offhanded remarks about gay people. But with all of the uncertainty in his lifeWould he finish school? Get a work visa? Return to America?he wanted to make a decision that was firmly his own.

“I was like, at least I can be true with myself. I decided to come out.”

He sighs.

“And then everything started happening.”


In the winter of 2010, he and his boyfriend, Angel, decided to make their relationship public. The two began to walk around Mexico City holding hands, Molina Mendoza often in distinctive, colorful clothing. Taunts and physical aggression soon followed, he says. Men shouted obscenities at them and shoved them. One day, he says, a group of men chased the couple down the street, roughed them up, and threatened them with rape and beatings. They were nearly hit with beer bottles.

“It was at that point, I didn’t know what to do with my life,” Molina Mendoza says. “At that moment there were a lot of killings of gay people going on in this area in Mexico City called Zona Rosait’s predominantly gay. And I was like, I don’t want this to happen to me.”

He had reason to be afraid. Although statistics on homophobic violence in Mexico are hard to come by, a 2009 study by the nongovernmental organization Letra S reported 143 anti-LGBT murders between 1995 and 2008 in Mexico City alone. The borough that contains Zona Rosa was particularly hard-hit, with forty-two killings over the same time period.

The violence set Molina Mendoza on edge. He began missing work at the call center that employed him, avoided leaving the house, and was constantly roiled by anxiety. In October 2013, three years after he came out, Molina Mendoza decided to cross the border yet again. Shortly thereafter, he was caught. He says he ended up signing a voluntary departure order, which fast-tracked his removal from the U.S. and meant he didn’t have to spend more time in detention.

The voluntary departure order is “basically a way of short-circuiting the deportation process so that, instead of going before a judge, ICE is able to get a removal faster, more efficiently,” explains Elizabeth Keyes, an assistant professor of law of the University of Baltimore’s Immigrant Rights Clinic. “My critical eye on it is people sign it in detention without being aware of exactly what it means. They might have a piece of paper in front of them, but they’re not aware they are signing away their rights to see a judge.”

Keyes’s critique is consistent with the way Molina Mendoza frames his experience.

“They asked if I was in any danger if I went back to Mexico,” he says. “I was going to say yes, but they encourage you to not say yes. They told me, if you say yes you will probably be in jail for like three or four years, and you’ll probably still get deported. Or if you sign your deportation now, we’ll just let you go.”

(ICE spokesman Bryan Cox directed questions about Molina Mendoza’s experience at the border to the U.S. Border Patrol, “as that encounter would not have been with” ICE. The Border Patrol did not respond to the INDY‘s request for comment by press time.)

Unfortunately for Molina Mendoza, had he stayed in North Carolina, he likely would have been shieldedat least temporarilyfrom deportation by then-president Barack Obama’s 2012 executive order establishing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The program grants undocumented immigrants who came to the United States at sixteen years of age or younger two-year work permits and protection from deportation during that time. After the program expires, participants can apply for renewal.

Molina Mendoza returned to Mexico dejected. But friends soon began encouraging him to apply for political asylum. Until then, he didn’t know that was a possibility. So in 2014, he pressed his luck again. This time, he made his way to a port of entry in Otay Mesa, California, gave himself up, and announced that he was seeking asylum.


Molina Mendoza spent three days in what he calls a “cooler”a freezing, white-walled detention cell, with about forty other menand then was sent to a detention center run by Corrections Corporation of America, which now calls itself CoreCivic, the nation’s second-largest private prison company. CoreCivic, which contracts with ICE, has profited enormously from the expansion of the immigration detention system. In 2014, according to Securities and Exchange Commission records, the company earned $195 million in net revenue, up from $133 million in 2007.

Molina Mendoza spent three months at the private facility in San Diego. Conditions, he says, were dismal. “It’s a mental test, because they don’t let you do anything. You can only go from your cell to a mini-patio. I started getting rashes all over my skin. So I asked for a medical appointment, but I didn’t get one for almost like three weeks. When I finally got out I still had that condition on me for almost a year.”

(CoreCivic referred the INDY‘s request for comment to ICE. On its website, CoreCivic’s Human Policy Statement says that “we value the inherent dignity of the human person and the need to treat every individual with respect.”)

Molina Mendoza passed his credible fear interviewa series of questions that an immigration officer asks to determine whether an asylum applicant has a reasonable fear of persecution, the first step in the asylum processand was released from the detention center on a $7,500 bond. He left the center flat broke. He spent two weeks sleeping in an acquaintance’s car while his family cobbled together enough money to buy a plane ticket to North Carolina. He landed in Durham and began working. The asylum process allowed him to get a work permit and a Social Security number, so he began waiting tables. With his savings, he was able to buy a car. He found a lawyer who was willing to take his case pro bono and eventually reconnected with and began dating his old high school pal, Francisco.

“Everything was going good,” he says.

Until it wasn’t.

Molina Mendoza and his attorney, Helen L. Parsonage, thought his evidentiary hearing, held in November 2015, went well. Not so. On March 9, 2016, he received notice that Judge Barry J. Pettinato had denied his asylum request. The basis for the denial, according to Parsonage, was the fact that, in 2009, Mexico City had become the first Latin American city to legalize gay marriage.

“The immigration judge believed that the passage of marriage equality in Mexico City was an indication that Mexico was no longer a country in which my client needed to fear persecution on the basis of being gay,” Parsonage says.

“Immigration judges aren’t trained on adjudicating LGBTQ asylum cases,” says Sharita Gruberg, associate director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “For places where LGBTQ people aren’t criminalized but where they still face persecution, the difference between laws on the books and actual treatment can be difficult for a judge not well versed in anti-LGBT persecution to grasp.”

Pettinato and his fellow Charlotte immigration court judges are known for being tough on asylum applicants, advocates say. According to a Department of Justice report, they granted asylum in just 21 of the 167 asylum cases they heard in fiscal year 201513 percent. By comparison, Phoenix’s immigration court asylum grant rate that year was 74 percent.

Even among judges in the same immigration court, asylum grant rates can vary wildly, compounding the system’s seeming randomness. In Newark, New Jersey, for example, one judge denied 98.6 percent of asylum cases from 2011–16; another denied just 18 percent, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Indeed, a 2016 Government Accountability Office report “found huge variation in asylum grant rates depending on which judge heard the case,” Gruberg says.

The system’s arbitrariness is not lost on Molina Mendoza.

“If my case would have been in California or New York, it could have been totally different,” he acknowledges. “I would probably have my green card.”


These are the twists and turns that led Molina Mendoza to where he is today. It is a path paved with dualitiesvictories and setbacks, trauma and love, attention and solitude. And at the center of it all is a frustratingly vague picture of what his life will look like in the months ahead.

For anyone, this would be exhausting. That helps explain Molina Mendoza’s measured response after hearing last week’s news about his postponed deportation. The notice to appear at ICE’s office in Charlotte Tuesday, he told the INDY the day before, meant that anything could happen.

“There is a high chance of me being detained on Tuesday,” he wrote in a text message, inserting a frowny-face emoji. “They will try to deport me again.”

They didn’t, but the day proved nonetheless to be another emotional roller coaster. He made the tense drive to Charlotte early Tuesday morning, alongside Francisco and a handful of supporters. He walked up to the second floor of the ICE office, anxiously awaiting an update, as immigration officers filed in and out of the room. And eventually he walked out with a notice to appearalong with renewed plans to spend the rest of his whirlwind Valentine’s Day with Francisco.

That felt nice.

“I gotta say, I feel really good,” he told the INDY afterward. “I’m happy because I thought there was a possibility for them to not respect the position and detain me. And that didn’t happen. It’s a small step, because my deportation is still pending. But I’m still here, I’m not deported.”

Mendoza Molina still worries. His next check-in might end differently.

“Maybe they didn’t detain me today because there was so much public pressure and media,” he said, “but maybe next time they might try to because maybe the media won’t be there.”

And so he’ll return to his home in Durham, where he’ll type away on his laptop underneath a poster depicting a cartoon unicorn in a red therapist’s chair, with a speech bubble capturing the shrink’s response: “You need to believe in yourself.”

That’s all he can do, really. But he’ll still sleep restlessly. Sometimes after events, even after all of the kind words and hugs, he’ll still feel sad.

“I feel the pressure, I feel everything, the weight of the decision coming. But I try not to focus on that,” he says. “When I go out with my family or Francisco, like it or not, we always have that conversation. But I try to enjoy it.”

Sometimes, he adds, “I just stop, and I start breathing.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Back To Where You Don’t Belong”