In his holding cell at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Santa Ana, Luis Bravo says he could hear something rare for a person in his situation: the sound of phones ringing off the hook.
Over the past several years, undocumented youth and immigrant rights activists have increasingly used social media to organize large scale protests against deportations and push for broader immigration reform.
But according to local activists, Bravo’s detention late last week by ICE agents was the first time in recent memory that a real time social media campaign culminated in the immediate release of a detained immigrant after an arrest.
Bravo, a 22-year-old community organizer, said the ringing phones buoyed his spirits.
He said they also seemed to unnerve immigration authorities.
“[An officer] told me to ‘tell your little entourage of people who are calling to stop calling, or it’s only going to be worse for you,’” Bravo said in an phone interview after his release. ”Even though I was literally alone, I knew that my family or someone outside was doing something for me.”
He said one officer told him that phone calls from friends, family and a network of activists across the country came in so quickly that authorities couldn’t keep up, letting most of the messages go straight to voicemail.
Organizers said they expect to keep up real time publicity pressure around detentions, stressing that the results speak for themselves.
Bravo, who was arrested early last Thursday at his home in Costa Mesa, was released within six hours of being taken into custody.
It was a reaction from immigration authorities that even surprised his family, known in the community for their involvement in immigrant rights activism.
Family members directly credit the ad-hoc phone and social media campaign with successfully pressuring federal officials to quickly release the 22-year-old Bravo so he could remain with his family while his case is pending.
A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that each case is reviewed individually.
Bravo, who was convicted for driving under the influence in 2013, is a community organizer at the Orange County Congregation Community Organization, also known as OCCCO, and organizes as a part of the group Immigrant Youth United.
According to family members, officials came to their Costa Mesa home early in the morning and woke them up, asking family members to help them identify a suspect named ‘Cesar’ who was using their home address.
Bravo’s younger brother Daniel told the OC Weekly that officers did not have a picture of the man, but did have one of Luis.
Officers asked Luis Bravo to step aside while they interrogated him, eventually walking him to a van parked several blocks from their home, where they arrested him without explanation.
Bravo’s sister Jessica uploaded a tearful video to YouTube shortly after her brother was arrested.
“At that moment, I was like, everyone needs to know. Because this is not right and it’s happening every single day. So I uploaded a video to Facebook so everyone could know what happened, help us take action and stop my brothers deportation,” Bravo said. “I didn’t know if only a few people would see it or if anyone would share it.”
That video was shared, with the hashtag #releaseluis, on Facebook by friends, family and OCCCO organizers, who called on other immigrant rights groups in their network to share the video and call the Santa Ana detention center.
OCCCO, which works with church congregations in low-income communities to encourage civic engagement, is part of a national network of faith-based organizers, called the Pacific Institute for Community Organizations, or PICO.
By 11:30 am, OCCCO had organized a press conference on the Bravo’s front lawn in Costa Mesa.
They set up a phone bank, and members of the congregation, faith leaders and other volunteers she didn’t recognize got to work making calls to congressional representatives, sharing Jessica’s video on social media and calling friends for help.
“In a matter of minutes…people were at our house. Everyone was on their computers on their computers or their phones, calling, sharing, everything possible,” Jessica Bravo said. “It was so beautiful that, not only in my house, but across the country, petitions were going out, people were signing it, it really shows where the power lies when people unite.”
Luis Bravo was arrested for driving under the influence in December 2012, and was later convicted, fined and sentenced to three years probation.
According a statement from ICE, Bravo was “targeted for arrest due to his prior conviction for driving under the influence, which makes him a potential public safety threat.”
Spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in a telephone interview that Orange County-based officials made the arrest based on information developed at a center in Vermont.
“We look at the totality of the circumstances, including a thorough review of immigrant history, criminal history, and whether or not they have ties to the community, have family here, or are a potential flight risk,” Kice said, when asked why officials decided to release Bravo. “Detaining people is one option we have. Typically we endeavor to reserve our detection beds for people who are statutorily subject to mandatory deportation.”
Kice would not comment on whether the phone calls affected their decision to release him.
“In cases where we feel, based on the circumstances, we think they are likely to comply and attend immigration hearings than we may release them on their own recognizance,” she added.
Meanwhile, Bravo, who says has lived in the United States for 17 years, potentially faces deportation to Mexico, and it will be up to an immigration court judge to decide whether he can remain in the country. He said that when he was released, officers told him to wait for details about his case in the mail.
Although the DREAMer movement, named after a piece of legislation that could create a path to permanent residency for undocumented youth, has often protested detentions and deportations, Bravo’s release took many local organizers by surprise.
Monica Curca, communication director at OCCCO, said Bravo’s quick release was surprising, as most detentions last for at least 24 hours and especially given his DUI conviction.
But she attributed his release to the group’s quick response and refusal to stop calling. OCCCO also called on local politicians and officials to intervene, including Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez.
She estimates that more than 300 people called the detention center, although they have no way of knowing exactly how many calls and messages were received.
“The feedback we were getting was, ‘please stop calling, you guys are annoying, we’ll release him by dinner time.’ But we said, that’s not good enough – we want him by lunch. We weren’t going to stop,” Curca said.
At a meeting of the Santa Ana Building Health Communities coalition Friday morning, leaders reflected on Bravo’s detention and their unexpected success with getting him released.
“Part of our conversation this morning was, how do we duplicate what OCCCO did every time someone is detained, so ICE knows they can’t mess with us?” Curca said.
Curca sees their success not as a result of Bravo’s unique reputation in the community as a leading activist, but an example of how developing long-term community relationships can pay off.
In addition to mobilizing friends and acquaintances of the Bravo family in Orange County, the group tapped into a national network of activists that was able to make such a quick and aggressive response possible.
“That’s the thing that even our nonprofit world doesn’t understand. It takes a lot of mundane meetings and mentoring people and stuff to build a community. We could make a call, and people would activate [immediately] because we’ve invested in that relationship,” Curca said.
Jessica, the sister, said her brother’s arrest is indicative of a need for immigration reform. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced that he would delay taking executive action on immigration until after the November election, drawing disappointment and frustration from immigrant rights groups.
“The president doesn’t understand that he can’t continue telling our families to wait, to wait after elections or until he’s ready. He doesn’t understand what it’s like to see your brother being taken away by ICE,” she said. “It’s frustrating that Congress is doing the same thing — playing political games.
Luis Bravo, who was back to work at OCCCO the next day, said the experience of being detained without knowledge of how long he would be held or why he was there, only emboldened his desire to keep pushing for immigrant rights.
“Even though I know my rights and I thought I knew how to react in these situations, I still felt intimidated and didn’t really feel comfortable saying things, because I thought it was going to be worse for me,” Bravo said in a phone interview. “It really made me think about how someone who doesn’t know their rights or speak [English] can get lost in this mess, not know how to even contact their family. I wouldn’t have been able to make a phone call if I hadn’t asked and asked again.”
“What about someone who is a father – how do you pick your kids up from school? How do you tell your wife? If you’re the breadwinner, how do you pay rent? All this stuff was going through my head, how incredibly fast it is. It really does catch you off guard and removes you from your life,” he added.
While Jessica says she was touched by the urgency of the community’s response and social media organizing, her brother’s release is the end of one ordeal and the start of another.
“There’s still a lot of fear in us, knowing that he can be deported at any time. I hope they got the message that this person that they’re trying to deport has the community behind them, before they even try to make another move like that. But we never know what to expect from them,” Bravo said.
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