Man Without a Country
Lifelong Pasadena resident Andres Romero fights deportation to Mexico after serving nearly 10 years in state prison
By Kevin Uhrich 01/23/2013
For Cheryl Romero and her family, the 2012 holiday season was going to be especially joyous.
After spending nearly 10 years behind bars for committing a drug-induced attempted burglary, Romero’s 53-year-old husband, Andres, was set to be released from state prison in Norco three days before Christmas.
However, the Romero family’s Yuletide euphoria was short-lived, turning to bitter disappointment after Cheryl was informed that her husband of nearly 33 years would not be set free, after all.
On Dec. 21 — one day before the planned release — the family learned Andres would be taken from Norco to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s detention center in Adelanto, a small desert town near Victorville. There, he would be held with hundreds of other men for yet another legal proceeding, this one set for Wednesday before a controversial administrative Immigration Court judge. That proceeding will decide whether he should be deported to Mexico. Although Romero has been living in the United States all of but 2 of his 53 years, he admits to never filling out the paperwork to become a naturalized citizen.
For Cheryl, after waiting for the father of her four adult children to do his time and finally come home from prison, the news of Andres’ possible deportation was nearly unbearable.
“I expected the worst, but when the worst came …,” says Cheryl, her voice filling with emotion while speaking with the Pasadena Weekly last Thursday in the living room of the family’s modest home on Del Mar Boulevard in eastern Pasadena. Cheryl and her 27-year-old son, Andres III, addressed letters to her husband while she spoke with a reporter.
“I didn’t expect what we are going through now. It’s a wake-up call for a lot of people,” she continues. “I’m sure others are going through the same thing. Wow. I’m just blown away by it.”
Cheryl was correct: Likely many families — mostly those of Mexican and Central American heritage — are going through something similar to what she and her children are experiencing with her husband’s federal deportation proceedings.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, the US Department of Homeland Security was formed. Out of that agency grew US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the principal investigative arm of Homeland Security and the second largest investigative agency in the federal government. ICE, according to the agency’s Web site, was created through the merger of the investigative and interior enforcement elements of the US Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS, in 2003.
According to an ongoing study of immigration enforcement conducted by Syracuse University, ICE apparently hasn’t been very effective at getting rid of terrorists, with deportation for terrorism-related activities decreasing from 88 in the decade prior to 9/11 to just 37 since then.
On the other hand, there have been 2.3 million deportations in the 10 years after 9/11, as compared to 1.6 million in the decade before the attacks. Most of those deportations involve run-of-the-mill immigrants from Central America, primarily Mexico, a place where people flee drug cartels that run roughshod over corrupt government officials, resulting in innocent people dying in the crossfire, or being killed for daring to inform on these ostensibly illegal activities. Mexico is a country so riddled with violence that journalists are routinely murdered, Facebook users are mercilessly slaughtered with machetes, according to CNN and other reputable news sources, and most journalism advocacy groups, such as Reporters Without Borders, and academic political science institutions like Freedom House, headed by former CIA Director James Woolsey, are barely able to classify it as a “free” democratic state when it comes to gauging press and other basic liberties.
When viewed in terms of the activities of the past two American presidential administrations, “the annual number of deportation proceedings since 9/11 increased on average from 219,941 a year under President Bush to 246,572 a year under President Obama,” according to the Syracuse University report, which, according to its authors, is based upon “a detailed analysis of the millions of records covering each deportation proceeding initiated by the Department of Homeland Security and the (INS) in Immigration Courts.” The individual case records were obtained through requests by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed with the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a unit within the Department of Justice, according to the report’s Web site home page.
Other key findings of the Syracuse University report state:
* Instances where a removal was sought on some other “national security” grounds in the decade before 9/11 numbered 384, or less than 2 out of every 10,000 removal proceedings. As was the case under terrorism, these types of deportation actions became even rarer after 9/11, dropping to 360.
* Individuals charged with having committed some sort of criminal offense were more common but still represented fewer than 1 out of 4 (22.8 percent) of the 1.6 million people charged during the decade before 9/11. “By comparison, even though there was a vast increase in all deportations in the post-attack period, the actual count of criminal filings dropped. Furthermore, when examined in percentage terms, those charged with committing a crime fell from 22.8 percent in the decade before to 15.2 percent after 9/11,” the report states.
* From 1991 to 2001, charges filed against 3 out of every 4 suspected illegal immigrants (75.7 percent) were limited to immigration violations. Since 9/11, this enforcement component had grown to nearly 6 out of every 7 of all individuals (83.2 percent). And, in sharp contrast to ICE’s stated priorities of catching crooks and terrorists, this category was the only one that saw real growth in numbers, going from 1,193,564 before the attacks to 1,896,717 in the decade after.
According to another study, conducted by the Medill Journalism School at Northwestern University, Mexican nationals had the highest rate of removals throughout the previous decade, making up about 70 percent of the total number of deportations by the close of 2008. Other countries that led in receiving US deportees throughout the past decade included Honduras, Guatemala, Dominican Republic and Colombia, according to the Medill data.
For as much as ICE says its goals are to weed out and deport terrorists and criminal aliens, more than 82 percent of deportees were not charged with any criminal violation, “nor was any claim advanced that they were a terrorist or posed a security risk,” according to the Syracuse University study.
Romero is considered a “criminal alien,” one who has spent the past decade in a place where immigration officials can easily boost their numbers in that category — sitting in a prison cell, with his records readily available for review by federal agencies, which since 9/11 have been sharing information with state and local law enforcement more than ever. It also doesn’t help Romero’s argument for freedom that he has been in and out of state prison for mostly drug-related crimes since the 1980s.
In his favor, however, is the fact that deportation of criminal aliens dropped 7.6 percentage points between the decade before 9/11 and the decade after 9/11. Whether that was due to less enforcement, fewer criminal aliens to deport or ICE agents’ bypassing Immigration Courts by simply shipping people back to their nation of origin following their detention, is not immediately known.
What makes Romero’s case somewhat unusual is the fact that while he may have been born in Tijuana, he has been living in California for 51 years, more than four decades of that time in Pasadena. Further, Cheryl Romero, formerly Cheryl Crawford, was born in the United States. Although Andres always considered himself a US citizen and never filed the proper paperwork to get on a path to permanent residence as Cheryl’s husband, for what it’s worth, the two have known each other since they were 13, when they attended Pasadena’s Blair High School together in the 1970s. They married shortly after graduation.
“Since this turn of events in my life, everyone has asked me, ‘Why didn’t you become a naturalized United States citizen?’” Andres Romero wrote in a Jan. 10 column for the Weekly titled “My America!”
“My response is and always will be, ‘Because I am an American citizen!’” he wrote. “This is my country! Maybe not on some binding and legal document, but this is the country I was raised in and have lived in my entire life!’”
Andres Romero knows it will take a virtual miracle to avoid deportation. But then, he’s already seen a few of those in his troubled life.
In prison a number of times, mostly for thefts related to his addiction to crack cocaine, Romero’s last conviction in 2003 for attempted burglary, occurring shortly after he relapsed, made him a prime Three Strikes candidate. This meant that, under California law, he could have faced a sentence of 25 years to life in prison for having three felony convictions on his record.
If not for the work he did during the late 1990s and early 2000s as a volunteer gang counselor in Pasadena and Altadena — dealing directly with the Pasadena City Prosecutor’s Office on gang-related outreach and organizing peaceful football and basketball games, picnics and other events involving members of some of Pasadena’s toughest gangs and their families — Romero would likely still be sitting in prison, and not confined at the Adelanto Detention Facility.
At the time of his sentencing in 2003, a number of Pasadena civic leaders and others, among them former police Chief Bernard Melekian, Assemblyman and former Pasadena City Councilman Chris Holden (and, in the spirit of full disclosure, this reporter) wrote letters commending Romero’s good deeds and urging leniency for his latest nonviolent offense. That letter-writing campaign paid off, as Romero received 11 years in state prison. An opinionated man with often good ideas and valid observations, Romero has also occasionally written columns for the Weekly from prison titled “Inside Out.”
In his federal deportation case, Romero is rallying supporters once again in hopes of persuading Immigration Court Judge Anna Ho to let him go. However, according to published reports, that may also require some type of divine intercession.
According to a 2006 story appearing in the Baltimore Sun, Ho was among 20 of the nation’s 224 immigration judges to have complaints filed against them, prompting a review by then-US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. According to the Sun, Ho was on the immigration bench in Seattle in 2001 when the case that resulted in a rebuke from the appellate court was being heard. In that case, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco concluded Ho had failed to conduct herself as an impartial judge, “but rather as a prosecutor anxious to pick holes in the petitioner’s story,” according the news report.
Prior to the Gonzales review in 2006, Ho’s record when it came to denying petitions for asylum dropped significantly. From 2004 to 2008, Ho heard 427 asylum cases. From 2004 to 2006, the judge denied 69.7 percent of the cases. From 2006 to 2008, her denial rate fell to 62.8 percent, according to the Syracuse University TRAC project.
Then something not yet fully explained occurred. The latest TRAC data, released earlier this month for fiscal year 2013, which began in October, shows ICE requests for deportation orders dropped 25 percent from last year’s pace. “During the first three months of FY 2013 only 56.6 percent of Immigration Court closures resulted in a removal or voluntary departure order. In the remainder of the cases (43.4 percent), the individual was allowed to remain in the country. This year’s figure is by far the lowest removal percentage seen since TRAC’ systematic tracking began in 1998,” states the latest report. The declines, postulate the study’s authors, could be due to an increase in prosecutorial discretion in bringing only certain cases to court.
According to the US Justice Department, Homeland Security in 2011 allowed for more prosecutorial discretion in determining whether certain cases could be considered a law enforcement priority. If not deemed such, Homeland Security could request “administrative closure” of the case, meaning it would be removed from the court’s calendar. This does not mean the case is completed or that the court has sided with the petitioner. “If the court orders your case administratively closed, it simply means you will have no further hearings unless you or DHS specifically ask the court to schedule a hearing,” according to Justice Department’s Web site.
“Deportation orders issued by the Immigration Courts started falling in 2010,” states the latest Syracuse TRAC report. “While deportation orders rose slightly [last] October, this appears to have been only a one-month anomaly: both November and December 2012 orders fell sharply. December orders were also down 23.2 percent from the average monthly number of deportation orders issued during FY 2012, and were 38 percent lower than the monthly average during FY 2011.” However, despite fewer removal orders, deportations have actually continued climbing.
“Recent case-by-case data obtained by TRAC from ICE under the Freedom of Information Act suggests that ICE may increasingly be bypassing the Immigration Courts, deporting individuals without court action using other provisions of the law,” the report states. This means Romero — or, for that matter, any undocumented immigrant lacking legal representation — could have their names removed from the court docket by prosecutors and never have their cases heard by a judge.
For now, he’s been lucky — again. Romero’s case is scheduled to be heard by Judge Ho on Wednesday morning in downtown Los Angeles. He plans to ask for time to find a lawyer. According to ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice, detainees may have attorneys, but legal aid is not directly provided by the government, as it would be in traditional state and federal criminal courts.
“While individuals in administrative immigration proceedings MAY be represented by legal counsel, it is not like a criminal case where they will be provided with a court appointed attorney if they don’t have a lawyer,” Kice said in an email.
While the government does not offer legal representation to immigrants, at least one nonprofit organization is known to aid detainees who need counsel. The Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, a program of Catholic Charities of Los Angeles that gets most of its funding from the government, provides continuing legal education on immigration law to attorneys willing to work for free in helping detainees. Esperanza has helped people detained at not only Adelanto, but also at the Crittenton Services for Children and Families shelter in Fullerton, the David & Margaret Home for Children in La Verne, where the Office of Refugee Resettlement holds immigrant children while their cases are pending, and Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towers jail in downtown Los Angeles.
A good man
If anyone has a right to be angry with Romero, it’s his wife and children. Andres Romero III says he gave up on his dad nearly a decade ago, when he went to prison for a fourth time on a drug-related offense.
“His addiction, it caused a lot of hurt to the family, and it put us in a lot of holes, you know. I did my best to fill some of those potholes. It didn’t always work, but we found a way to make it happen. I hated him for a long time, you know,” the younger Romero says. “He caused a lot of hurt to my mom and my sister. It took a long time to not just forgive him, but to want him back in our lives. It took a couple of years to actually want a relationship with him. I think I was 21 or 22 when I first started talking to him again and we began to rehab our relationship. I had absolutely no intention of going to visit him. I just didn’t want to see him there, but it took a while to rehab that relationship, but I wanted him in my life.”
When it became clear his father wasn’t coming home, the son visited him for the first time while he was in federal custody at Adelanto.
“I felt like he needed us, and I needed something. I wanted him to know that we are still here. Even though I never went to see him those 10 years, I just wanted him to know that we are waiting for you.”
“I just want someone to grow old with, that’s why I’ve stayed married to this man,” says Cheryl. “You’re not supposed to grow old by yourself. You’re supposed to grow old together.”
Both mother and son say drugs are what brought so much tragedy into their lives.
“He used to take care of my grandmother, take her for walks. He’s got a good heart, but he just got caught up in drugs and it totally wasn’t him. It’s like a wolf that needs to eat and it’s hungry …That’s what a lot drug addicts do,” Cheryl says.
“I mean, it wasn’t like he chose to be a drug addict, either,” says the son.
Andres Romero Jr. says he fears most for his wife’s financial and physical well-being should he be deported. Cheryl has worked at Avon in Pasadena for the past 18 years, and the company announced last week that it is planning to close next year.
“That’s another blow,” Andres Jr. says in a telephone interview from Adelanto of Avon’s announcement. He claims to have jobs already lined up for when he is finally released. Although being sent to violence-wracked Mexico with no connections and speaking little Spanish is a major concern, he worries more about his wife losing her job while he’s in exile. “She always says don’t worry, but that would be a real hardship,” he says.
Andres III just wants his dad to know: “We’ve been here the whole time,” he says. “We aren’t going anywhere. We are all in this together. I want him to know that he is still loved. I just want our family back together. Really, that’s what it comes down to.”