T he bank building posing as a federal courthouse at Sixth and Olive streets in downtown Los Angeles, across the street from the back entrance to Pershing Square, was — as usual — full of families consisting of young and middle-aged women joined by sisters, brothers, parents and children, some of them infants and toddlers.
Yes, there are prosecutors and lawyers here, some more sure-footed than others. But no reporters with cameras will get past the contracted uniformed guards manning metal detectors to capture the tears and expressions of emotional anguish painted on many of these faces after their loved one’s “day in court.” Tape recorders aren’t allowed here either. Only handwritten notes will be able to record the cries of anxious family members losing a deported family member, typically a Hispanic father and breadwinner of a family already struggling to make ends meet.
Yes, there are lawyers, but the Constitution’s guarantees of legal representation for defendants in criminal matters do not apply here in administrative law court, this one governing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These defense counselors are all paid, some handsomely, and they all seem to struggle with the requisite and often confusing bureaucratic array of paperwork that needs to be filed before defendants can appear before a judge with any hope of being successful, which most defendants are not.
After six months and as many hearings, Pasadena’s Andres Romero joined those ranks Monday morning after Administrative Law Judge David Burke deported Romero to Mexico, despite the fact that Romero left that country with his mother at the age of 2 and has spent 51 of his 53 years in the Pasadena area — only never in all that time becoming a naturalized citizen. Deported, even though he has paid taxes, been through the public school system, has been married to the same woman for 33 years and fathered four children with her.
Undaunted by the ruling, Romero said in a telephone interview Monday night from Adelanto Detention Facility in Victorville that he hasn’t given up hope.
“I plan to appeal,” he said. “I believe they left room for me to appeal.”
It was to Adelanto that Romero, a former Pasadena gang counselor who lost his counseling job, resumed his addiction to crack cocaine and was ultimately convicted of an attempted burglary in 2004, was taken following his release from nearby Norco State Prison, where he had just finished serving 8 ½ years of an 11-year sentence.
Although that’s a considerable stretch of time, Romero, who once wrote columns for the Pasadena Weekly, was actually lucky: When he was sentenced for that crime, he already had two drug-related felony convictions on his record, making him eligible for a life sentence under the state’s recently modified three-strikes and you’re out law.
Instead, after a number of public officials and community figures came forward to call for leniency, the judge imposed a lighter sentence. Romero was set to be released three days before Christmas when he learned that the federal government planned to deport him to Mexico, a place he’s only ever visited two times, and both times resulting in him being assaulted.
Although some legal help was available for thousands of dollars that neither he nor his family members had available, Romero represented himself, eventually winning an opportunity to lay out his case in a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Ana Ho.
During the course of the hearing, Romero’s mother, Mercedes Hernandez, testified that she had become a legal resident after Romero turned 18, making him ineligible for umbrella protection through her. His wife, Cheryl, also took the stand, telling of how her husband had traveled to Mexico with friends. And Romero told of two visits to that country with friends. During both trips across the border, Romero said he was accosted by men dressed as police officers, one who waved a gun in his face before stealing his money.
Throughout the proceedings, Romero, who does not speak Spanish, maintained that sending him to Mexico would be tantamount to a death sentence. He presented documents from human rights organizations indicating Mexico, although a democracy, is wracked by political corruption and violence driven by the narcotics trade.
“Mexican officials know what’s going on because they are part of the problem,” Romero said during his last chance to speak at the hearing prior to Monday’s proceedings. He also pointed out to Ho that he had spent years as a volunteer in Pasadena and had performed enough good deeds to be recognized for his work by top city officials.
He acknowledged, “I am not an American citizen, but neither am I a Mexican national. I am an American, period, and not only could I lose my life, I would lose my family. I am not and have never been a violent offender. Although my crimes are serious, I have never injured or harmed anyone.
“I am asking, no, I am pleading, please don’t take away this last chance that has been given to me,” he said.
In her final written decision, Ho did not dispute any of Romero’s claims, or those of his family members. However, she could not support one part of his plea because the applicable federal statute prohibits admission of a felon who had served more than a five-year sentence. She also did not question Romero’s recollections of being accosted by police, but could not sustain his other contention that it rose to the level of torture under the United Nations’ Conventions Against Torture. Finally, Ho also denied his application for political asylum.
Romero points out that Ho “believed my statements, she believed my application, that I was tortured when I had a gun put to my face.” However, Romero believes the judge was acting more like a prosecutor than an impartial trier of fact throughout much of the proceedings, saying she was one-sided in her determinations.
“I understand the need for immigration tightening up, but when you start deporting everyone and anyone, you’re defeating the purpose,” Romero said.
During several of the proceedings, Cheryl Romero and the couple’s sons and Andres’ sisters appeared in court, as did his mother. At the last two hearings, only Mercedes came to court. The other family members were unable to get away from work and school to attend.
“It is my wife who will suffer,” Romero said after Monday’s hearing. He has 30 days to appeal the ruling. If the appeal is denied, “It’s going to be a life sentence. It was either life in prison or life in a foreign country. I guess I’m going to get life anyway.” n