The long goodbye
Former Pasadena counselor heads to Mexico after deportation is upheld
By Kevin Uhrich 10/30/2013
At 4:45 Thursday morning, Oct. 24, federal agents at the Adelanto Detention Facility near Victorville came for longtime Pasadena resident Andres Romero.
“They told me this was the day,” said the 54-year-old husband and father, who had received word the previous week that his recent deportation to Mexico had been upheld by the Board of Immigration Appeals in Virginia.
“I said, ‘You couldn’t tell me this last night?’” Romero bravely wisecracked over the phone a few hours after getting rousted out of bed.
By this time, 8 a.m., the bus from Adelanto to Tijuana was gassed up and ready for the long ride south. His call to the Pasadena Weekly would be one of the last phone conversations he would have in the United States.
“A lot of people retire and go to other countries. This is getting kicked out,” he said, suddenly roaring with laughter at the bitter irony of living in the United States for more than 50 years, having a mother wife and children who are all American citizens, and now being sent to a country that he only ever visited. And all for what amounted to being an ex-felon who failed to fill out the right paperwork needed to become a naturalized citizen.
“Uh oh, I gotta go. I’ll call you right back,” the former local gang counselor said hurriedly, hanging up abruptly, indicating he might not get another chance to talk. Within a few minutes, though, he was back on the line, but not for long. The bus was leaving. Romero had to go.
“By 6 o’clock tonight I won’t have any rights anymore. No constitutional rights anymore,” he said. “That’s crazy.”
Playing out against a renewed national debate on immigration reform, last week’s deportation marked the latest episode in Romero’s ongoing battle to stay in the United States after spending nearly 10 years in prison in California, a fight that began shortly before last Christmas. At that time, Romero was being released from Norco State Prison after serving more than nine of 11 years behind bars for an exaggerated burglary charge to which he pleaded guilty in order to avoid a life sentence under the state’s former Three Strikes and You’re Out law.
Romero had a number of drug-related convictions in his past, making him eligible for a life sentence. In fact, his last crime was the result of a drug-induced bender brought on by Romero being unable to break into Pasadena’s nonprofit agency circles due to his prior convictions. Out of work, his volunteer help of local gang members over, a destitute Romero reverted to crack cocaine and lived on the streets for a time. In a drug-induced stupor, he peered through the window of a Pasadena home before being chased away by the owner, who never actually saw Romero. But Romero later confessed to police, and prosecutors were prepared to throw the book at him.
Thanks to pleas for leniency from such top local officials as former Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian, who praised Romero for the positive work he did with dangerous gang members, prosecutors were satisfied with seeking a lesser sentence.
It wasn’t until Dec. 22 that Romero — fully expecting to be reunited with Cheryl, his loving wife of more than 30 years and mother of their four grown children — learned that he was not being released. He was being sent to Adelanto to await a hearing to determine whether he should be deported to Mexico, the country that he and his mother left for the San Gabriel Valley when he was 2 years old.
Following a series of hearings over the next six months before Immigration Judge Anna Ho, Romero, representing himself, argued in sometimes testy exchanges with the civil court judge that he should be allowed to stay in the United States, primarily because it’s the only country he could remember living in. Romero also said that the two times he visited Mexico since the 1980s he was assaulted by men in police uniforms who held him at gunpoint in two separate incidents, and robbed him of money in one of those situations. Romero said his safety would be in question if he returned to Mexico.
Also during the hearings it was learned that Romero’s mother had become naturalized, and his wife and children were born in this country, but he never pursued becoming a citizen.
In her final ruling, Ho decided against Romero, ordering his deportation, which he appealed. In a document dated Oct. 17, the appeals board in Falls Church, Va., also decided against Romero, who could not get around the last conviction and sentence. In the eyes of both courts, he was an “aggravated felon,” one fully eligible for deportation.
“First-degree burglary … is categorically a crime of violence,” the appeals board wrote. “The respondent was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of at least 1 year. Therefore, he is removable as charged.”
The panel also rejected Romero’s claims that he would be tortured if he returned to Mexico.
“Although the type of extortion and misconduct by police the respondent suffered when he was in Mexico years ago is reprehensible, it did not amount to torture,” the board found. “The respondent did show it is more likely than not he will be tortured because he is Americanized or for any other reason if he is removed to Mexico.”
As Romero was gearing up for his trip across the border, officials in Pasadena were taking steps to support federal immigration reform efforts that provide a pathway to citizenship for people here illegally who are hoping to stay in the United States.
In Pasadena, Latino’s make up 33 percent of the city’s population, and more than 60 percent of the student population of the Pasadena Unified School District. According to a city staff report, since 2008 more than 1.6 million immigrants have been deported and one in every 10 American children faces the threat of deportation of a parent. It is estimated that about 11 million undocumented immigrants are currently living in the United States, with California possessing the country’s largest population of those people.
The Pasadena City Council on Monday voted 6-1 to adopt a resolution supporting comprehensive immigration reform, with Councilman Gene Masuda abstaining from voting on the matter. Passed in June, US Senate Bill 744 provides a path to citizenship, a streamlined immigration process and increased border patrol. The bill does not mandate that police departments enforce federal immigration laws. The House of Representatives is unlikely to take up the issue before the beginning of the year, according to the report.
Romero, who wrote opinion columns for the Pasadena Weekly before going to state prison, while in prison, and while under federal detention at Adelanto, said he had made plans to stay with relatives of his mother when he arrived in Mexico. He also said he has no plans to stop writing.
“This is not the final goodbye, nor is it the ending of my book in life, but the beginning of a new chapter,” he wrote in a letter to the newspaper. “I look forward to reporting firsthand experiences of what happens to a person who is deported to a foreign country he or she knows nothing about. This should be more interesting than challenging, because I’ve faced and have been through much worse things in my life.”
In his conversation with the Weekly, Romero talked about some of his fellow inmates at Adelanto, and how “guys are getting deported for the smallest things … not having a driver’s license, things like that, and they are destroying lives.”
He’s not quite sure how he will change his current situation, “But I don’t see myself staying here for the rest of my life,” Romero said. “In my heart, I will always be an American, just like all my children are Americans. You can’t take that away from me.”
Deputy Editor André Coleman contributed to this report.