UC Berkeley student Luis Mora (right, with girlfriend Jaleen Udarbe), is in custody at an immigration detention center after being arrested at a San Diego checkpoint. Photo: YouCaring

Update, Jan. 6, 11:35 a.m. An ICE officer handling Luis Mora’s case said he does not plan to release the student from custody while he awaits his court appearance. Mora’s attorney, Prerna Lal, shared a letter from the officer on Twitter, in which he wrote, “It is my intention to defer release conditions to the immigration court.”

A growing chorus of advocates and public officials, including Berkeley mayor Jesse Arreguín, have called for Mora’s release. Many activists are asking UC Berkeley administrators to take a stronger stand in support of the student.

Original story, Jan. 5, 7 a.m. Some UC Berkeley students, as well as other supporters, are calling for the release of Luis Mora, an undocumented student in the custody of U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) at a private detention center in San Diego.

Mora, a 20-year-old junior transfer student at Cal, spent the holidays in San Diego County, where he grew up. According to Mora’s attorney, he and his girlfriend took a wrong turn while driving in Jamul on Saturday night, and encountered a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol immigration checkpoint.

Lauren Mack, an ICE spokeswoman for the San Diego area, told Berkeleyside that Mora was arrested on suspicion of overstaying his visa and was held in a Border Patrol facility before being transferred by ICE to Otay Mesa Detention Center, where he is awaiting deportation proceedings.

Mora’s girlfriend, Jaleen Udarbe, has been advocating for Mora’s release so he can go back to school until he is due in court. As of Friday morning, no deportation hearing date had been set, according to the immigration court hotline.

Students from the UC Berkeley advocacy organization Rising Immigrant Scholars through Education (RISE), and others, have joined the cause, and Prerna Lal, an immigration attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center, has taken on the case.

UC Berkeley spokeswoman Janet Gilmore said in a statement Thursday that the university has heard about the arrest and is “actively seeking to confirm all the facts of this distressing news.”

“The campus does have processes in place to support students seeking legal resources on a variety of issues, and this includes attorney services for students managing immigration issues. While student privacy laws and UC policy limit what we can disclose about individual student records, we can tell you that we are looking into the matter to determine everything we can do to support and assist the student during this difficult time,” Gilmore wrote in the statement.

Attorney Lal said she was unavailable for interviews Thursday, but has been tweeting live updates and visited Mora at the detention center Thursday. According to Lal, who works for UC Berkeley’s Undocumented Student Program, Mora could have been eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The Obama-era program, which granted temporary reprieve, and the ability to work, to many undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, was rescinded by President Donald Trump in September. Mora came to the U.S. from Colombia as an 11-year-old on a temporary visa.

Mora’s case has attracted the attention of student groups, national advocacy organization and high-profile activists like Jose Antonio Vargas, who have tweeted their support under the hashtag #FreeLuis and shared an image directing allies to call ICE and demand Mora’s immediate release. Late Thursday, Lal tweeted that California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, along with Rep. Barbara Lee, had reached out to offer their support to Mora.

“We have authority to parole,” confirmed ICE spokesperson Mack, but she said no decision has been made either way yet. “He was just taken into our custody yesterday,” she said. Mack said she has been fielding lots of calls asking if Mora could be bailed out. Border Patrol did not set a bond when Mora was arrested, she said, though he has a right to request one.

Mora’s supporters are raising money on YouCaring in the hope that a bond is set, and plan to place funds in his detainee account that, they believe, would allow him to make phone calls.

After visiting her client, Lal tweeted that Mora will continue fighting for himself, and said she encouraged him to organize other detainees.

“He’s a bright young bilingual man who knows his rights and has plenty of resources at his disposal,” she wrote. “He knows human rights violations when he sees them. He’s competent and intelligent. Keeping him detained at this facility just means he will start a revolution in there.”

Mora, who is studying political science at Cal, was given the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Young Latino Champion award in 2016, when he was a student at Southwestern College in Chula Vista.

According to the Union-Tribune profile, Mora faced challenges as a non-native English speaker, but ended up becoming a writing tutor for English and non-English speakers, volunteered at his church and worked at a refugee advocacy organization at the time of the article.

“I like to show that you can make an impact in your community no matter who you are,” Mora said then. “What inspires me is seeing how little things can make a big change.”

Lal was relieved that Mora was transferred to Otay Mesa after being held longer than expected at the Border Patrol’s facility, which is only designed for temporary stays. But she and others are concerned because Otay Mesa was recently sued in a class-action suit alleging forced labor and inhumane conditions at the center.

In a statement released late Thursday, Valeria Suarez, lead organizer with RISE, said the campaign to release Mora is part of a broader effort.

“As grateful as I am for the huge levels of support directed towards Luis, it’s important to remember that his story is not the only one,” she said. “We must fight to liberate Luis alongside the thousands of undocumented folks who are being unjustly held in detention centers.”

This story was updated as new information became available. 

"*" indicates required fields

See an error that needs correcting? Have a tip, question or suggestion? Drop us a line.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...