Juan Garcia's cell phone is rarely idle.
While in meetings, at rallies or even in bed, immigrants are calling him, asking for help with everything from paying rent to handling immigration agents at their doorstep.
Garcia, who came to the United States in 1977 in the trunk of a car to escape a bloody civil war in Guatemala, his homeland, has been especially busy in the year since Gov. Don Carcieri signed an executive order that targets illegal immigration.
Garcia has emerged as the go-to person for immigrants unwilling to work with police or state agencies for fear they or someone they love could be deported.
"It's not a job. It's a mission," he said. "I'm working seven days a week because I feel it in my heart."
A community organizer for the Immigrants in Action Committee, a nonprofit group with about 550 members, the 56-year-old Garcia has become one of the most public faces of opposition to Carcieri's March 2008 order. It requires state police and prison officials to identify illegal immigrants for deportation and mandates that state agencies and contractors use a federal database to validate employees' legal status.
Garcia believes the order is confusing and has led to racial profiling. He believes illegal immigration should be treated as a civil _ not criminal _ violation, a view that rankles people like Terry Gorman, who wants immigration laws tightened and strictly enforced.
"I respect that he fights for what he believes in, even though I totally disagree with it," said Gorman, founder of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement.
Garcia is a regular Saturday-morning guest on a Spanish-language radio station, WKKB-FM. He's not shy about broadcasting the address of a home targeted by immigration agents so listeners can show up to lend support. He has led a demonstration at the Statehouse and invited police departments to meet with immigrant groups to explain their jobs and allay concerns.
And he educates recent immigrants on everyday concerns: They must have a license to drive a car off a sales lot, he tells them, and they can't walk around with open beer containers or play loud music into the night.
"Many people who come here from villages don't follow the system because (there), they live without rules," he said.
Garcia has a "total commitment to the individuals who call," said Rachel Miller, director of Rhode Island Jobs With Justice, an advocacy group.
Take Jose Genao. While he and a friend were speaking in Spanish as they waited at a plumbing supply store last March, owner David Richardson asked them to produce social security numbers to show they were legal residents.
Genao, a U.S. citizen who speaks fluent English, wanted to fight but didn't know how. Garcia drew publicity to the case, and Genao filed a complaint with state and local civil rights agencies, which found probable cause Richardson broke city and state discrimination laws.
Richardson apologized and paid a $500 fine to Genao, who gave five $100 payments to the organizations that helped him, including Garcia's Immigrants in Action Committee.
Garcia's activism dates to his childhood. As a 10-year-old, he and other kids threw rocks at Guatemalan troops storming into their village to kill students during the country's 36-year-long civil war which began in 1960.
Garcia sneaked into the U.S. in 1977 _ "without documents, without anything," he said _ and settled in San Antonio, where he later married a U.S. citizen and raised two children.
He began thinking about American immigration policy after his father died in Guatemala in 1988. He was concerned he'd be unable to return to the United States a second time if he went to his father's bedside, an experience that inspired him to help make it easier for those trying to emigrate to America.
He gained legal, permanent residency through his wife but after a divorce moved to Rhode Island, where he had two brothers he barely knew. He found work welding in Pawtucket. But his face bears the scars of a brutal assault that led him, inadvertently, back to his religious faith and a renewed sense of activism. In 1992, attackers stabbed him a dozen times, nearly killing him, during a robbery.
"I felt I hated the people who did this," he said. "I didn't want to feel hatred against anyone."
Searching for peace, he wandered into St. Teresa of Avila, a Catholic church near his Providence home. He began going regularly, and started working in 1998 with Immigrants in Action, which is housed in the church.
He receives a nominal salary and maintains a sparse office with a broken wall clock, chairs with ripped vinyl cushions and a picture of Mother Teresa.
He relishes his role as an activist and adviser for new immigrants, but he knows the limits of what one person can do.
"Every day it's the same," he said. "People think I have a magic wand, that I can resolve everything. But no."
Juan Garcia's cell phone is rarely idle.