A banner reading, "2 million 2 many, Stop deportations" hangs outside the apartment of Enrique and Vicky Bravo in Costa Mesa. It wasn't there on the morning of Sept. 18, when two men in plainclothes and black vests emblazoned with "POLICE" rang the doorbell and asked everyone to whip out their IDs.
"They said they were looking for a person named Cesar," recalls Daniel Bravo, who opened the door. He saw a picture of the mysterious Cesar; right alongside it was a grainy black-and-white shot of his older brother, Luis.
Groggy from the unexpected wakeup call, the 22-year-old Luis initially cooperated with the strangers. It's in his nature. Luis volunteers his time for the Orange County Congregation Community Organization (OCCCO), a group heavily involved in OC immigrant issues; actually, his whole family is active in OCCCO. And just the night before, he spoke with Costa Mesa Police Chief Tom Gazsi about how to increase trust between the city's Latinos and law enforcement.
But the men were unimpressed. After asking the soft-spoken Luis a couple of questions, they grabbed him by his arms and lead him to a white, unmarked van parked far from the Bravo home. It was only then that one man identified himself to the family as an agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)–la migra.
"We were mad, angry, frustrated, sad and heartbroken," says Jessica Bravo, Luis' younger sister. But the Bravos didn't stay shocked for long. Jessica quickly called an OCCCO community organizer to tell them what happened, then went to her computer and recorded a tearful video that quickly spread across OC's progressive and immigrant-rights community, pleading to the world, "We need your support to be able to stop [Luis'] deportation."
Within minutes, activists started gathering at the Bravo house to strategize. Calls went out to clergy, attorneys and politicians. People taped protest signs on the home, prepping it for a press conference. The National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON), People Improving Communities Through Organizing (PICO) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) chipped in on the nationwide blitz with email and Facebook blasts. Everyone began flooding the ICE office in Santa Ana with phone calls–so many, Luis claims, that the agents openly complained to him.
The uproar worked. A few minutes before noon, ICE released Luis. "I felt so many emotions," he says. "My sister and my mom hugged me. I thanked everyone. We had a prayer and celebrated a little bit."
Ever the activist, Luis and his sister kept their previous commitment to OCCCO by conducting workshops at the Diocese of Orange later that evening.
"The Bravos have been instrumental in raising the dialogue on immigration reform in Orange County for the past two or three years," says Miguel Hernandez, OCCCO's newly appointed executive director. "They are courageous."
But the Bravos are left to wonder about the real reason ICE went after Luis.
Growing up sin papeles, Luis and his family weren't always outspoken advocates. The family has lived in the U.S. since 1998, when Enrique Bravo came looking for work. He sent for Luis and his younger siblings later that year; since then, Costa Mesa is the only place he has known as home. Though Vicky has worked with OCCCO since 2004 to organize Latino neighborhoods, the rest of the family mostly lived in the shadows.
"We would do our best to remain under the radar," Luis says. "A lot of my close friends growing up didn't even know I was undocumented."
That began to change in 2013, once developments in Washington made immigration reform seem within reach for the Bravos and millions more. Enrique and Vicky joined OCCCO in fasts, marches and a pilgrimage from Sacramento to Bakersfield, talking to congressional members along the way. Luis soon followed, helping out in a successful campaign that will allow undocumented immigrants in California to get driver's licenses starting next year. "Through that, I was introduced to the fact that all these immigration issues directly affected me," he says.
Jessica and Daniel quickly joined in, with Jessica getting national attention in February 2013 after Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) reduced her to tears after a particularly ignorant rant at his D.C. office. That ugly encounter further emboldened the Bravos, who have worked on citizenship campaigns and are now signing up and mobilizing new voters with an eye toward the November elections and beyond. "We can make sure people know what power they have with the vote," Luis says. "[Voting is] something I wish I could do."
But a good citizen is hardly what ICE thinks Luis would make one day; spokesperson Virginia Kice says Bravo was picked up for a prior DUI conviction, "which makes him a potential public-safety threat. . . . It will be up to the immigration court to determine whether Mr. Bravo has a legal basis to remain in the U.S."
Luis doesn't deny the conviction, noting he paid the fines and attended the required program for first-time offenders without incident. "Everyone makes mistakes, and one action should not define who you are for the rest of your life," he says. He'll learn of any upcoming immigration-court dates via snail mail.
Kice says agents sent out that morning were members of ICE's Fugitive Operations Team, as part of a ramped-up effort to nab undocumented immigrants now that many local police agencies refuse to work with the government agency.
"Why is ICE spending resources to knock on doors of families like the Bravos that are looking to contribute to our community?" Hernandez asks. "One thing that personifies Luis is that he's so thoughtful. As faith-based folks, we really pray and hope that this is not something intentional toward the Bravo family."
In the meanwhile, all the Bravo family can do is continue to protest and find an attorney to help Luis.
"I don't know what I would do if sent back to Mexico," Luis says. "I've been here pretty much all my life."
The protest signs put up on the day of Luis' arrest remain, along with a small U.S. flag that flaps lazily in the breeze. The family decided to leave the banners in place in the hope that other undocumented families take notice and knock on their door for help.
"ICE knows where we live," Luis says. "We're not in hiding."