A taste of freedom
Former Pasadena gang counselor fights for bond while appealing recent deportation order
By Kevin Uhrich 06/26/2013
He may have been ordered out of the country, but Pasadena’s Andres Romero could still be freed — at least temporarily — if he is allowed to post a bond pending appeal of his recent deportation.
A bond hearing was set for Wednesday — just past the Pasadena Weekly’s print deadline — in US Immigration Court in downtown Los Angeles.
“It’s not a sure thing, but I am not going to go quietly,” Romero said in a phone interview last week.
The lifelong Pasadena-area resident served 8½ years of an 11-year sentence in state prison in Norco for a burglary conviction and was set to be released three days before Christmas. But instead of being set free, the 53-year-old Romero was taken to the Adelanto Detention Facility in Victorville the day after Christmas to face deportation proceedings.
Two weeks ago, Romero’s six-month effort to remain in this country was denied by Immigration Judge David Burke, who was sitting in that day for Judge Anna Ho. By then, Ho had already presided over a series of hearings to determine whether Romero could be allowed to stay in the United States.
In her six-page ruling, Ho wrote that Romero did not qualify for admission because he is an “aggravated felon,” as defined by the US Immigration and Nationality Act. Ho, who heard testimony from Romero, his mother Mercedes Hernandez and his wife, Cheryl, found that, while Romero’s claims of being detained, beaten and robbed by police officers in Mexico on two separate pleasure trips there in the 1980s and ’90s were credible, they were not enough to prove that he would be tortured by government forces if he were to be sent to that country, as Romero contended.
“The Court finds [that] Respondent’s statements in his asylum application and his oral testimony are believable, consistent, and sufficiently detailed to provide a plausible and coherent account of his asylum claim. Accordingly, the Court deems Respondent’s testimony to be credible,” Ho wrote.
In his testimony, Romero, who does not speak Spanish, said he believed his life would be in danger if he were sent to Mexico; a “death sentence,” as he called it. However, Ho wrote, “The Court finds that Respondent has not met his burden of establishing that it is more likely than not that he will suffer torture in Mexico by or with the consent or acquiescence of the Mexican government.”
In her final analysis, “Having considered all of the testimonial and documentary evidence in the record in light of applicable law, whether or not specifically referenced in the decision, the Court now denies Respondent’s application for relief and orders his removal to Mexico.”
Romero also applied for a U Visa, which allows immigrants who have been victims of crimes committed against them in the United States to remain in this country for a number of years. There were no police records available to corroborate Romero’s claims of suffering sexual abuse aa a child, or that he had been shot as a teen. That application was also denied.
Shortly after Ho handed down her ruling, Romero, who is representing himself in court, filed an appeal to Ho’s decision with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) in Virginia. A decision from that court could take up to six months, Romero said.
While criminal defendants are by law assigned attorneys if they do not have one or cannot afford one, no such provision exists for people appearing in US Immigration Court, an administrative law court operated through the US Department of Justice.
In 2012, US District Judge Terry Hatter agreed with the contention put forth by the ACLU that all detainees must be granted a bond hearing after being held for six months, a ruling opposed by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Rodriguez v. Robbins, a class action lawsuit that sought to allow bond for immigrants held longer than six months while their cases remained pending, bears similarities to Romero’s situation. In that case, Alejandro Rodriguez argued that he was brought to the United States before his first birthday and had lived in the US his whole life before the government tried to deport him based on minor theft offenses, according to the ACLU Web site. Rodriguez was detained for nearly three years while he argued his case, which he eventually won.
In a ruling in March, US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kim Wardlaw of Pasadena noted that more than “429,000 detainees were held by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement over the course of fiscal year 2011; on average, over 33,000 were detained on any given day. As of late 2011, the Los Angeles Field Office of ICE oversaw the detention of over 2,000 aliens, the great majority of whom were not subject to a final order of removal.”
In her analysis, Wardlaw sided with Hatter, stating, “Contrary to the government’s rhetoric, this injunction will not flood our streets with fearsome criminals seeking to escape the force of American immigration law. The district court’s narrowly tailored order provides individuals, whose right to be present in the United States remains to be decided, a hearing where a neutral decision-maker can determine whether they might deserve conditional release from the prison-like setting where they might otherwise languish for months or years on end.”
Born in Mexico, Romero was brought to the United States by his mother at age 2, then attended public schools and worked at various jobs throughout his life. His latest position before being imprisoned was as a youth gang counselor in Pasadena. Soon after that, however, a state law prohibited felons from being allowed on public school campuses, meaning the program Romero had started was over.
By that time, Romero had already been convicted twice on drug-related felonies. Destitute, he resumed smoking crack cocaine and was later arrested in connection with a reported trespassing in which Romero’s fingerprint was found on one of the home’s windowsills.
Although Romero was looking at life in prison under the state’s three strikes law, a number of prominent people, including former Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian and this reporter, wrote letters pleading for leniency in his sentencing.
Along with being an “aggravated felon” under the federal statute, there remains the question of citizenship. While his mom eventually went through the process of becoming a citizen, Romero never did. His eight younger siblings were all born in the United States, as was Romero’s wife of 33 years, the mother of their four children, making him the only person in his immediate family who is not an actual citizen.
The questions to be posed during the bond hearing are: 1) is Romero a flight risk, and 2) is he a danger to society?
In her written decision, Ho does not touch on the first part, only the latter. “Asylum and withholding of removal are not available to an alien who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a ‘particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the citizens of the United States.’ By operation of law, a non-citizen ‘who has been convicted of an aggravated felony shall be considered to have been convicted of a particularly serious crime’ and is ineligible for asylum,” wrote the judge.
“Because Respondent’s aggravated felony resulted in a term of imprisonment of at least five years, his conviction constitutes a per se particularly serious crime, and he is ineligible for withholding from removal.” Ho’s ruling, however, does not touch on the matter of bond.
The prolific Romero wrote columns for this newspaper about gang life while living in Pasadena, and about life in prison while behind bars. In a column written in January, a few weeks after he was sent to Adelanto, Romero wrote, “In essence, I am being detained and prosecuted for the same offense that led to my incarceration in a state prison.”
He said bond could range from $1,500 to $500,000. His bond, if granted, would likely be in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, Romero speculated.
If granted bond, Romero noted that he would be regularly reporting to parole agents with the state and ICE officials. He also insists that he poses no danger to anyone and that all of his convictions were drug-related, with none of those crimes involving violence.
Bond would allow Romero to reunite with his family, then get a job and contribute at home. But it would also allow him access to legal aid clinics and law libraries, as well as the ability to use computers to research his case, something not available at Adelanto.
The nightly news, said Romero, “is full of stories about illegal immigrants and about politicians getting tough on immigration and cracking down on illegal border crossings.” But, Romero said, it’s not that simple. “Every story has two sides. This is the other side; the effect it has on families. This is the part people are not getting.”