Natalia and Antonio Saavedra made it only to the third grade in their native Mexico, forced out of school to work and help their struggling families.
They crossed the border illegally about two decades ago, and decided they would push their children – two of came with them from Mexico as toddlers, one was born here – to study hard, get a good college education and always stand tall for their beliefs.
Their middle son, Marco, who was 3 years old when they came to the United States, heeded the urging perhaps most fervently, majoring in human rights in college.
Now, the 23-year-old is at the epicenter of one of the most divisive debates on immigration in the nation – what to do about the “DREAM 9,” the term assigned to him and the eight other Mexican undocumented immigrants who sit in a federal detention center in Arizona.
“I won’t rest until he’s out,” Natalia Saavedra told Fox News Latino. “I always wanted my children to grow up and be strong, fight for their beliefs. Marco took my lessons in earnest, all the way to the edge.”
Her son and the others ended up there after they attempted to enter the country on July 22 without proper documents, a premeditated move to call attention to what they say is a deeply flawed immigration system.
He’s a warrior. He’s in a battle beyond himself, he’s in a battle for all immigrants.
- Natalia Saavedra, on her son Marco, an immigration activist
Saavedra was part of the original three activists who already were in the United States, where they grew up, and left to Mexico knowing they’d encounter problems upon returning. They were joined by another six who had been deported or returned to Mexico after living in the United States.
At a border crossing in Nogales, Ariz., they asked to be let into the country on special humanitarian parole. They also asked for political asylum.
They have been interviewed to assess whether they have “credible fear” of persecution, a requirement for political asylum. A decision may come on Tuesday.
“I am hoping and praying,” said Natalia Saavedra, who keeps a table at her restaurant, La Morada, in the Bronx, covered with the many awards and diplomas her son has received.
The DREAM 9 activists’ protest has, political and immigration experts say, created a quandary for the White House and lawmakers in Congress who are trying to work on an immigration reform measure.
And it has bitterly divided advocates, including immigration lawyers – some who see the young activists as heroes, as civil rights leaders in the tradition of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and others who say they have engaged in a foolish, reckless manner that may undermine the very reforms they are seeking.
Saavedra says she and her husband, who she said are undocumented, are not in total agreement with how their son has chosen to make his point.
“We’ve had our differences,” she said about how far to go in fighting for immigration reform. “But our family supports him. He’s a warrior. He’s in a battle beyond himself, he’s in a battle for all immigrants. I know that victory is coming.”
It is not the first time Marco Saavedra has rattled the cages of U.S. authorities in fighting what he and others who have joined him say is a system that mishandles undocumented immigrants, particularly those who were brought to the United States as minors.
He and other activists infiltrated an immigrant detention center in Florida last year to gather information on conditions there and to highlight the Obama administration’s record number of deportations.
They got arrested for blocking a public street during a protest against the deportations.
According to The Nation, a New York immigration judge urged Marco Saavedra to apply for deferred action under an Obama program that suspends deportation for two years for undocumented immigrants brought as minors.
Though he appears to meet the criteria for the deferred action, Saavedra refused to apply for it, telling the judge, according to The Nation: “The matter is that I don’t think I did anything wrong when I crossed the border at the age of 3.”
Last week, the former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, David Leopold, took to social media to express his misgivings over the immigrants’ decision to risk arrest and to challenge U.S. immigration laws.
Leopold views the move of the DREAM9 as a publicity stunt that may backfire.
“It’s very serious to cross out of the United States,” said Leopold to Fox News Latino. “I’ve handled many cases where people who were DREAMers were so frustrated, they left voluntarily. They couldn’t get a job, they couldn’t get a license, but then they fought to get back in, but we did it within the system.”
The group that organized the border crossing is the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, which also helped plan the infiltration of the Florida detention center.
The DREAM9 supporters defend the activists, saying they are courageous and that proponents of immigration reform should stand behind them.
More than three dozen members of Congress signed a letter to Obama appealing for their release from the detention center.
Some lawmakers say they will support them, and are trying to get their release, though they don’t necessarily condone their attempt to enter after leaving voluntarily.
Some immigration lawyers pressed the leadership of the American Immigration Lawyers Association to sign a letter supporting the DREAM9.
The executive director declined, saying “ I’m sorry, but, no, our leadership has decided not to sign onto the letter. . .By signing onto this, we would be signaling to the community that there is legal remedy for when someone undocumented leaves the country and attempts to return when, in the vast, vast majority of cases, there is no remedy…We cannot sign something that even tacitly suggests that such a remedy exists, lest it encourage others to follow suit.”
Meanwhile, back in the Bronx, Natalia Saavedra -- who says that her family has made numerous attempts to legalize their status and have been duped by immigration attorneys -- keeps praying for her son.
"He could have just worked here, and gotten deferred action," she said. "But that is not my son's nature."
"He sees deferred action as something that is not a real solution, a permanent answer to the problem of the immigrants who grew up here and are in limbo," she said. "He does not want to take it and just shut up and go away."
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente