Juan Carlos Romero seems like a typical New York City college student. He has a shy smile featuring wire braces, and he lives with his parents and sister in the melting pot neighborhood of Jackson Heights in the borough of Queens. But he shrinks from talking with friends at school about spring break plans or summer vacations.
“It’s disheartening, I don’t know too many undocumented people, so when they talk about traveling and doing all sorts of fun stuff, I just have to stay away and avoid those conversations," said Romero, 20.
He and his sister, Denise Romero, arrived in New York from Mexico with their parents when they were 8 and 10 years old, respectively. Like many of the other estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, the Romeros knew life in New York could be tenuous. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Department of Homeland Security, more than 1.8 million people have been deported since President Barack Obama took office. That number is expected to reach 2 million this month.
Over the weekend, immigration reform advocates in more than 40 U.S. cities engaged in a national day of action and called upon Obama to suspend deportations. The protests represented a recent shift in tactics among advocates who have become frustrated with the prospects for immigration reform in Congress.
Now groups are increasingly calling on Obama to take direct action on the issue and use executive authority to halt deportations. It is a move winning some high-profile supporters, such as Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who has demanded Obama halt deportations for relatives of U.S. citizens.
But away from the fiery political debate, the issue for the Romero family is intensely personal.
“As the older sibling, my mom always prepared me for what to do if they were deported in a raid,” Denise Romero said. "In my first years in New York, I was always aware we were undocumented. That was something our parents made sure of, and so there was a feeling of fear because we always knew city agencies could mean deportation, that [ICE] raids could happen.”
But the family wasn’t prepared for the day in 2011 when Juan Carlos Romero, then 17, was stopped, frisked and arrested on minor marijuana possession and trespassing charges while leaving his high school. After he violated his probation, Romero said, the judge sent him to jail at Rikers Island for five days as a time out. ICE agents were waiting for him when he was released and took him to an immigration detention center housed in one wing of a county jail in New Jersey.
He spent two months in detention in the company of many prisoners who were much older than him, many of them gang members. “I was surrounded by a lot of bad people. Keeping to yourself was pretty much all I did.” He was released on Thanksgiving in 2011.
Denise and Juan Carlos Romero, shortly after they arrived in the U.S. 12 years ago.Courtesy the Romero family
Three years later, Romero and his family are still fighting the deportation order. If he loses his last appeal in June, he will be deported to Mexico, a country he has not seen in more than a decade. “It’s a lot of weight on me, and it does change me. It makes me feel like an ugly person sometimes,” he said.
Monica Novoa is a campaigner with Presente.org, an immigrant rights organization pushing for immigration reform. “We are making four demands on the president. The first is to stop all deportations. The second is to meet with families that have been devastated by the immigration policies, from detention to deportation to border enforcement militarization and racial profiling laws. The third demand is to expand deferred action to more families. And the fourth is to put a stop to the Secure Communities program, which is racially profiling black and brown people across the country,” she said.
ICE maintains Secure Communities is an effective program that allows police to check fingerprints against immigration databases and is designed to deport dangerous criminals. A report by The Los Angeles Times last week showed that the deportation of settled, working people has decreased by 40 percent since 2009. It also said that the cases for 4 out of 5 deportees apprehended more than 100 miles from the U.S. border are pursued by officials only after criminal convictions.
In March, Obama called for a review of his administration’s deportation procedures to see how enforcement can be conducted “more humanely within the confines of the law.”
But for the Romeros, that review and reform may not come soon enough.
“When you have someone in your family who is in deportation proceedings, it stops your entire life,” Denise Romero said. “It’s something I carry with me all the time. It’s hard for me to think about a future where I am not with my brother.”