Marco Saavedra. (Image courtesy: Rafael Salazar Moreno)

“The matter is that I don’t think I did anything wrong when I crossed the border at the age of 3,” said Marco Saavedra to immigration Judge Terry Bain in a New York courtroom this week. Saavedra, who infiltrated an immigrant detention center last year, was due in court to update Judge Bain on his decision whether or not to apply for deferred action—which, if approved, would terminate his case and grant him status to remain in the United States for at least two years. But Saavedra told the rather stunned judge and prosecutor that he won’t be applying.

Master calendar hearings at the Lower Manhattan immigration court sound more like a fast-paced auction than pensive motions. Each case averages about five minutes, and often ends with a decision for a later date on which to hold a full hearing. A prosecutor sits in a smart beige coat next to a giant cart brimming with immigration case files. As each case moves quickly along, he stacks them in a giant pile on the floor that looks as if it will quickly tip over. Those files represent entire lives lived in the shadows, neatly reduced to a teetering pile.

Immigration cases are civil matters—undocumented immigrants in deportation proceedings have no right to a speedy trial or a court-appointed lawyer. Those who are not deported and opt for trial pay for lawyers—who run from courtroom to courtroom and sometimes appear to know nothing about their clients’ cases during the lightening fast hearings. In contrast, Saavedra represented himself; his hearing took closer to fifteen minutes, and captured nearly everyone’s attention.

As a 23-year-old with a sympathetic case, it’s likely Saavedra may have been able to have his entire case dropped last Tuesday had he applied for deferred action. As his name was called, Saavedra removed the army green jacket he was wearing in the audience, and revealed a bright turquoise blue t-shirt that read “I am undocumented,” in white letters, with a pronunciation respelling that drives the message home. Judge Bain, who seemed as compassionate as she did confused after Saavedra made his decision clear, implored him to apply over and over again. She finally made clear that if he did not, she will order his deportation at a later hearing.

Saavedra’s decision is part of a strategy developed by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, or NIYA. He’s declining an easy way out as a form of protest, because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to place low priority individuals in detention—and many are then deported. Saavedra is essentially trying to humanize that giant stack of immigration case files piling up on the courtroom floor.

“Under human rights law alone, we’re talking about too many people who should never have been placed in detention to begin with,” Saavedra told me. He says there’s little accountability at the court level, and that too many cases should never have gotten that far. The NIYA has held civil disobedience actions in the streets, infiltrated detentions centers, and is now pushing back against the courts—their goal is to have an organized, undocumented presence at every level of a system they say is largely rogue.

Saavedra’s full hearing is now set for September—after the possible passage of comprehensive immigration reform, and a summer of aggressive pro-immigrant organizing. Asked if he fears Judge Bain will order his deportation, Saavedra didn’t flinch. “Whatever they mandate, we can organize against it.”

This weekend marks the halfway point of a 200-mile march of immigrant farmworkers and allies to Publix headquarters in Florida. For more on this and other firsthand accounts of student-worker struggle, check out this week's Dispatches from the US Student Movement.