ANDREA HUERFANO spent the summer of 2008 registering Portlanders to vote, volunteering seven days a week with local grassroots political nonprofit the Bus Project. But last week, Huerfano was nearly deported from the country she worked to support. It turns out that during her time working to involve underrepresented people in Oregon's democracy, Huerfano herself was an illegal immigrant.
In Portland, Huerfano was a member of the Bus Project's political leadership boot camp, whose 24 members registered 4,300 voters over 10 weeks.
"She was particularly passionate about registering homeless people," says fellow PolitiCorps-member Mollie Ruskin. "She just had a way of making people comfortable, maybe because she speaks with an accent and doesn't look like a lot of Portlanders."
Huerfano's father fled political persecution in Colombia in 2001, bringing his family to the US when Andrea was 14, according to family lawyer Ivania Jimenez. But during the long asylum process, Huerfano's father died. Without his testimony, a judge denied the family asylum. Her mother remarried and gained citizenship, but Andrea was too old to qualify and decided to continue living in the country illegally for two years.
On the morning of Tuesday, December 8, Huerfano went to the courthouse in Miami, where she now lives, to pay a parking ticket. Immigration officials checked her status and immediately detained her. That morning, Huerfano became one of an estimated 31,345 immigrants living in U.S. detention centers. Officials worked to deport her to Colombia, though Huerfano has no family remaining in her home country.
"I was shocked, I didn't think that it was going to happen to me—but I mean, it's the process," says Huerfano. She passed her first few hours in Broward Transitional Center frantically making phone calls, including to her Portland friends from the Bus Project. "I didn't know what was going to happen to me. I didn't want to think that I was going to be deported," says Huerfano.
Ruskin and Bus Project Education Director Caitlin Baggott leapt into action, alerting a network of political contacts about Huerfano's looming deportation. By Friday, December 11, they had cobbled together a coalition of Florida social justice groups, a pro-bono immigration lawyer, an online petition with 700 signatures, and a letter of support for Huerfano signed by two congressmen.
"In this young woman's case, the system failed," says immigration lawyer Andres Benach, who advised Huerfano's advocates. "She has things that she fights for. I would like that kind of citizen any day."
Lawyer Jimenez successfully filed a stay of deportation for Huerfano, which got her out of the detention center and grants her six months before facing deportation again. Jimenez is not optimistic about her chances.
"Where we're at right now, there's nothing that could make her legal," says Jimenez.
The best shot at citizenship for someone like Huerfano is the DREAM Act, a federal bill that would provide a path to citizenship to people with clean records who graduate from American high schools. But that act is currently stalled in congress.
Huerfano seems to hold no resentment about her detainment and impending deportation.
"If anything, it's made my opinions stronger about what we need to do," she says. "Hopefully this will provide me an opportunity to be able to build more in this country."