IT’S A FAMILIAR STORY. An undocumented immigrant is stopped for a routine traffic violation—a few miles above the speed limit or a burnt-out brake light—and winds up in a detention center awaiting deportation, turning a family’s lives upside down. Like the rest of us, Cristian Padilla Romero ’18 had heard it all before—read it in the papers, seen it on TV. This time, however, the news was personal. It came in a frantic call from his sister. And this time, it wasn’t some unfortunate stranger who was threatened with imminent removal. It was his mom.
It was news that Padilla Romero—now living his own American dream as a doctoral student in history at Yale University—had feared on some barely acknowledged level ever since he was old enough to understand the full import of his family’s immigration status, but still, it came as a shock.
When he got the call, he was in the midst of a road trip, driving from Chicago to Claremont with his girlfriend, who was returning to Pomona for the start of her senior year. They had spent the night in Oklahoma City and were planning to take their time, stopping again in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before pushing on to California. But once they got the news, they decided to drive straight through so that he could catch the first flight home to Georgia.
For Padilla Romero, that was the start of a desperate, six-month battle that would grow into a national campaign to prevent his mom’s deportation and to gain her release from custody—a fight against the odds that would be waged in the courts, on social media, through the press and behind the political scenes. A fight that would pull in an army of allies and see some surprising results.
A fight that isn’t over yet.
TANIA ROMERO CAME TO the U.S. from Honduras almost 20 years ago, joining her husband who was already here. Living in Georgia and Florida, she did whatever it took to keep her family going, sometimes holding down three jobs at a time—changing hotel beds, working in restaurant kitchens and laundromats, finishing drywall at construction sites, selling food out of her home. “She was always working like that,” her son recalls. “As a kid, you see the things your parents do for you, but you don’t get the gravity of it until maybe later. I always say my mom is the biggest reason why I’ve been able to get to where I am now.”
Padilla Romero’s own status is protected, at least for now, by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA, but that’s cold comfort given the fact that if she were actually deported, he would be unable to visit her. Or rather, if he did, he would probably be unable to return. And to make the prospect even more frightening, Ms. Romero is a recent stage-4 cancer survivor.
Diagnosed with oral cancer in 2016, she spent the better part of a year undergoing aggressive treatments, including chemo, radiation and a very tough surgery. “The surgery ended up being basically cut across her whole neck, almost 360 degrees,” Padilla Romero says. By summer of 2017 she was declared in remission, but two years later she remained in precarious health and under an oncologist’s ongoing care.
Then, on August 15, 2019, in Greene County, Georgia, she was stopped for speeding and arrested for driving without a driver’s license—a common predicament for undocumented immigrants, who are barred by Georgia law from obtaining a license. The family hired an attorney and quickly paid her bail. The local authorities, however, declined to release her, choosing instead to hand her over to ICE—Immigration and Customs Enforcement—through its controversial 287(g) program. ICE immediately transferred her to the Irwin County Detention Center, a privately run facility in Ocilla, Georgia.
Padilla Romero feels fortunate that his mom didn’t simply vanish into the system, as has happened to many other detainees. “I don’t remember if the attorney notified us or, when she got booked, she was able to give us a call,” he says. “At least, it’s not like we spent days without knowing where she was.”
Legally, the case was complicated by the fact that Ms. Romero had an outstanding deportation order from 2008. “But we didn’t know about that deportation order until 2018, when my mom was applying for asylum,” Padilla Romero explains. “So the first week or two weeks after she was detained, our attorney filed two things. First, a stay of removal, which was on humanitarian grounds, basically arguing that she should be released because she needed to see her oncologist. She had an appointment coming up in a few weeks. The attorney also filed a second one, which was a motion to reopen. That was a much more legalistic argument, saying, ‘This removal order in 2008 was unlawful because my client didn’t know she even had this hearing, and we have proof from the government itself through the Freedom of Information Act, showing that the notices were returned to sender, undeliverable.’”
Padilla Romero thought they had a strong case, but in October the motion to reopen was denied. He realized they might be running out of time. “My mother meets all the criteria for ICE discretion—that’s undeniable,” he says. “But after that motion to reopen was ruled against us, we knew that ICE could deport her at any moment. Once that happened, we knew there was pretty much nothing else to lose, and we had to go public.”
THOUGH HE’D BEEN WORRIED about the danger of retaliation if he went public, Padilla Romero had already been reaching out to friends at Pomona and Yale, and now they were eager to pitch in. Some organized a petition drive while others steered him to media and governmental contacts. Before he knew it, he was at the epicenter of a minor media whirlwind.
“My friends were the first ones to hop on and help,” he recalls. “I get more credit than I deserve. There were so many people involved in this. When you see a campaign, you never see the faces and the number of people that put their labor into it. All of my Pomona friends were really helpful in terms of their social media presence—they were all reaching out. Here at Yale, two of my peers were helping me in contacting different people. We were dealing with congressional help, media folks, immigration advocacy organizations, the Honduran embassy. There were so many people involved.”
Many of his supporters, he was amazed to discover, were people he’d never met. “One of my peers here told me that her 90-something-year-old grandmother was, like, calling ICE daily advocating for my mother,” he says.
The campaign got its first big break in The New York Times, which published a long article on Oct. 31, 2019, titled “She’s Fighting Cancer. Her Son Is Fighting Her Deportation.”
Then a Yale speaker series brought in a history scholar and journalist named Rachel Nolan, who heard the story and took an interest. “She was like, ‘Hey, you know, I can pitch this story to The New Yorker,’” he remembers. “And it ended up happening. The New Yorker story is, I think, still my favorite because of the personal touch in dealing with the human story. And after that it was just a whole bunch of different media requests.”
Meanwhile, he was making the rounds on Capitol Hill, speaking with staff members for Connecticut senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, Georgia Congresswoman Lucy McBath and Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro. “DeLauro was the person that, in my view, provided the strongest support,” he says.
Yale University stepped up as well, with support that ranged from Lynn Cooley, dean of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, penning an op-ed for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, to Yale’s Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic (WIRAC) pouring resources into his mom’s case in court.
Padilla Romero also reached out to professional advocates in the field of immigration, including Hemly Ordonez, digital campaigns director at FWD.us, and Miriam Feldblum, the former dean of students at Pomona, now executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration in Washington. Among other advice, both encouraged him to contact the Honduran consulate. Ordonez, he says, was particularly helpful in putting him in touch with officials there.
It’s a little-known fact that before ICE officials can expel an immigrant from the U.S., they must first obtain travel documents from the consulate of the receiving nation. That’s important for a couple of reasons, Feldblum explains. “When they go to ask for travel documents, you know that deportation could be imminent,” she says. “but it’s also the case that some consulates have been able to not comply.”
Padilla Romero now considers that to be some of the most invaluable advice he received. He recalls: “We told the consulate that, you know, my mother, she’s a cancer survivor, and with her situation, she shouldn’t be deported. She’s also awaiting resolutions. And they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, of course, there’s no way we would issue travel documents knowing that situation.’ That was really a great relief.”
That promise was soon to be tested, however.
“The consul general received a call from one of the ICE directors—I’m not sure who—but they were really upset at her for not issuing those papers at the consulate,” Padilla Romero says. “That prompted her to reach out to her bosses at the Honduran embassy in D.C., and they backed her and us up, saying, ‘Yeah, we can’t issue those papers.’”
All told, he says, ICE tried to deport his mom at least three times, and three times the Honduran consulate steadfastly declined to provide the necessary paperwork.
The most frightening of those episodes, Padilla Romero says, happened one night about midnight. “I got a call from one of my mother’s inmate friends there, and to this day we’re still surprised at how she managed to call. My understanding is that after certain hours you can’t even make calls. But she told me, ‘Hey, they took your mom. They took her by force.’”
Later on, he would learn the details. “They just put her in a van,” he says. “They didn’t even take any of her medication. It was a long drive, at least three hours. She wasn’t even given water until like 10 in the morning, according to her. She didn’t eat that whole day until they were on their way back, around 3 p.m. She had bruises on her arms from the physical abuse. It was a very scary day. According to the consul, ICE was hoping to get the travel documents at the last minute.”
The seriousness of that episode was underscored when Padilla Romero spoke with some of the people who receive deportees in Honduras. “They said her name was on the list,” he says. “They were expecting her that day.”
THROUGH IT ALL, PADILLA ROMERO was able to speak with his mom almost daily, updating her about the campaign, the petition, the media. “She always tried to put on a brave face and, like, ‘I’m okay—I’m doing fine,’” he says. “My mom has always been a very spiritual person, a religious person. Although her physical health may be in decline, her spirits have always been very high.”
On the legal side, two professors and several students from WIRAC were now working on the case, along with a lawyer in Atlanta who was working pro bono. “They filed a stay at the 11th Circuit, which wasn’t rejected—just dismissed due to jurisdictional grounds, which was really upsetting,” he recalls. “But then they submitted a stay at the Macon District Court, I think it was. They were making a habeas argument, saying that her whole detention was unlawful. And surprisingly, we got a hearing in Macon, Georgia, and the judge granted a temporary stay for, like, two weeks.”
On the heels of that small victory, the family learned that ICE was reconsidering granting Ms. Romero a temporary stay. Then, just before Thanksgiving, word came from inside the detention center that something was up. Padilla Romero got the news in another call from his sister. “I was at my apartment in Connecticut. My sister called saying that one of my mom’s inmate friends called her saying my mom was being released.”
Family members immediately set off for the detention center, four hours away. “I contacted the WIRAC team here and told them, and so they got in contact with the attorney in Atlanta who was doing the pro bono services,” Padilla Romero says. “He got confirmation that yes, she was being released and transported to Atlanta ICE headquarters. My family was almost halfway to the detention center, and they turned back to Atlanta, and that’s where she was released.”
Padilla Romero prefers not to discuss the conditions surrounding his mom’s release, other than to say that it’s framed as a six-month stay. He’s also refrained from claiming any sort of victory or even announcing his mom’s release through the national press. “In terms of national news, we asked The New York Times and other folks to not necessarily report on it, for reasons that I told them,” he says. “That’s how we’ve been working it ever since. I don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt our chances.”
STATISTICS ARE HARD TO COME BY, but according to Feldblum, in cases such as Ms. Romero’s, any sort of reprieve—even the temporary kind—is rare. For Padilla Romero, the six months he’s been granted with his mom are precious, come what may. Beyond that, the legal challenges continue, and he tries not to think about what will happen if they ultimately lose.
“I can’t really think about that, you know?” he says. “We have our grandparents there, so she would be with our grandparents. The main thing is that we would have to do everything we can to find the medical resources she would need. That’s our main preoccupation. But my family hasn’t really come to terms with how we would deal with it. At the moment, none of us would be able to leave the country to visit her, and obviously she wouldn’t be able to come back.”
Along the way, he’s learned more about the legal system surrounding immigration that he ever wanted to know. “My mom’s case should be such a straightforward case. We have really good evidence. The whole removal order was just not done right. It tells me a lot about the way the legal system is so entrenched.”
On the other hand, he’s learned never to give up hope. “The ultimate reason why she wasn’t deported was the Honduran consulate not providing those papers. That’s what stopped her from getting on the plane. That alone, for example, shows that there’s always something that can be done. It requires a lot of coordination, a lot of effort and a lot of public support.”
Indeed, it’s the extraordinary outpouring of support from friends and strangers that keeps Padilla Romero hopeful in spite of a system that strikes him as heartless.
“I’ve learned a lot about cruelty,” he says, “but I’ve also learned a lot about kindness.”