Tania Romero’s case highlights the senseless cruelty of immigration detention as a default policyand her son and his classmates are providing a model for how to respond

by Piper French

(Editor's note: Please support Tania by signing this petition)

On the morning of November 12, Tania Romero woke up feeling hopeless. The night before, ICE agents had rousted her from her bed in a private prison in Georgia, saying she was about to be deported. When she held firm, telling them that Honduras, the country she left decades ago, had refused to sign travel documents for her departure, the agents threatened her with pepper spray and used physical force to remove her from her cell, according to Tania’s son, Cristian Padilla Romero. Then, they brought her to an unknown airport to board a charter flight back to Honduras.

Eventually, when it became clear that no travel documents were forthcoming, ICE brought Tania back to her cell, where she remains. “She was crying most of the time we were talking to her,” Cristian, a second-year PhD student at Yale University, told me over the phone the following evening. “She’s not doing well. … last night has just exacerbated everything. Before she was at least somewhat stable—now she’s saying she keeps getting these memories of when they picked her up… she has bruises on her arms.”

ICE has been trying to deport Tania for weeks now. A mother of four recovering from stage-IV cancer, she was arrested for driving without a license—a privilege denied to undocumented immigrants in Georgia—in August. She’s been in detention ever since, ineligible for bond release because of her outstanding order of removal. Repeated attempts by her lawyers to get her released on parole on humanitarian grounds due to her fragile health have failed.

What’s unique about Tania’s case isn’t the energy ICE is expending on deporting a woman who’s lived in the U.S. for decades, working several jobs in order to build a life for her family. That’s been the agency’s modus operandi ever since the Trump Administration ended immigration enforcement priorities, essentially making every undocumented immigrant in the United States a priority for removal. Nor is it the prolonged detention of a person whose medical needs cannot be properly treated in such a facility. Horrifyingly, it isn’t even the use of physical violence against a detained and vulnerable female immigrant.

What makes Tania’s case unique is this: the coordinated, collective campaign that her son Cristian, working alongside classmates at Yale and a host of advocacy groups in Georgia and beyond, has been able to mobilize in order to fight for his mother. Right now, it’s probably the only thing standing between Tania and deportation.

Cristian (wearing graduation robes), his mother (in lavender dress) and family members (Photo provided courtesy of Cristian Padilla Romero)

“Cristian is a classmate and friend, so when he told me she had been detained and then how her case was progressing, taking action was the only thing to do,” Josh Aiken, a second-year PhD student in History and African-American studies, told me over email. “I think we have to be ready to jump into action quickly when such violent detention and deportation regimes are in place.”

“[At Yale], we’ve been really fortunate to have access to networks that have allowed us to mobilize deeply collaborative efforts across schools and organizations,” Sandra Sánchez, who is in her second year of PhD studies in Immigration and Indigenous Histories of North America, told me. She and Josh see this as an opportunity to apply their scholarship, stand up against the “brutal immigration enforcement and incarceration systems in the U.S,” as Sandra put it—and, crucially, help their friend.

“All of this, for me, is to take the pressure off of Cristian so that he can be talking to his mother, his family, and not worrying about pulling numbers off of a congressional office’s website,” Sandra explained. Using scripts that Josh put together, they, along with cohort member Adam Waters, organized phone banking campaigns designed on October 31 and November 8 to raise awareness surrounding ICE’s ongoing deportation attempts, and have gone on to coordinate much of the campaign. Cristian, Josh, and Sandra each emphasized what a difference the collective nature of their organizing has made: everyone from immigration advocacy organizations in both DC and Georgia to peers and even total strangers is helping out. Cristian told me his mom is “very thankful for everyone who’s helping – we tell her every day” and asked that anybody willing to help keep calling their congressional representatives and ask them to put pressure on ICE to release Tania.

Tania Romero (photo courtesy of Cristian Padilla Romero)

When I asked Cristian if he thought his mother would already have been deported if not for the organizing effort, he responded before I could finish my sentence: “Definitely.” It wasn’t until the campaign successfully contacted Georgia congresswoman Lucy McBath’s office and convinced her to set up a meeting with ICE officials that Tania’s deportation was postponed. More recently, organizing efforts have been critical to the Honduran consulate’s refusal to issue travel documents for Tania’s deportation: “Now, because they were made aware of her case, the embassy has issued orders to not issue her documents anywhere, even if they try to get ahold of another consulate,” Cristian told me.

As of November 15, Cristian’s petition demanding that ICE release Tania on parole has already accrued over 38,000 signatures

As of November 15, Cristian’s petition demanding that ICE release Tania on parole has already accrued over 38,000 signatures, and a GoFundMe campaign has raised nearly $40,000 to assist the family with mounting medical and legal bills. Cristian and his classmates have also been carrying on an active Twitter campaign, using the hashtag #ReleaseTaniaNow, and were able to attract the attention of Stacey Abrams, who on November 12 tweeted a thread in support of Tania’s case. They’ve also reached out to press contacts, and have succeeded in getting coverage in The New Yorker and the New York Times, among other major publications. Rachel Nolan, who wrote The New Yorker piece, happened to be visiting campus for a lecture when she found out about Cristian’s situation. According to Sandra, Nolan “immediately began asking what she could do to help…reaching out to her press contacts and messaging ICE to get more information.”

Why has this story touched a nerve for people across the U.S.? “I think people are outraged that denying essential medical care, blatantly disregarding legal appeals, and employing terrorizing force, is a conceivable tactic wielded by ICE officials,” said Sandra.

“I haven’t been surprised by the amount of coverage the story has gotten, in part because of how Ms. Romero’s case represents so many of the horrors that characterize detention and deportation as a whole,” Joshua told me. Crucially, he added, “Cristian, his family, and all the other really incredible people organizing in support of Tania have never been saying there are other people who deserve to be subjected to the brutality of the deportation regime”—but rather acknowledging that “this is a case that can get attention—and the attention it gets sheds light on all the other injustices taking place.” For example, Tania is “being held in the same network of facilities where two people died over the course of a week in 2017.”

This extends to other developments in immigration policy that don’t have to do with Tania’s case, but that are nevertheless very close to home for her and her family. On Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court heard its first day of oral arguments for DACA, the Obama-era program that provides deportation protections for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. The final ruling won’t come for a number of months, but with a conservative majority on the court, DACA may not be long for this world—despite overwhelming and bipartisan public support for the program.

Cristian is a DACA recipient—it’s what’s allowed him to attend university at Pomona College and go on to pursue his doctorate at Yale. Was the possibility that ICE might come for him one day weighing on him, even as he fought for his mother’s case?

"My mom is the priority, so everything (else) is taking a backseat.”

“It’s hard to think about, honestly, just because my focus – logistically and mentally – is so much on my mom. My mom is the priority, so everything (else) is taking a backseat.” He paused. “Although it’s always there, right?”

As long as the Honduran consulate continues to refuse to issue Tania travel documents, ICE’s hands are tied: Tania cannot legally be deported. But forced removal isn’t the only tool in the agency’s toolkit.

According to Cristian, it could take six months or a year for a decision on the appeal that Tania’s lawyers have filed. ICE may well try to wear Tania down by keeping her in detention throughout this drawn-out bureaucratic process. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“Carceral facilities are designed to traumatize,” Josh told me. “They are meant to cut off connections between people and the outside world and they are meant to instill fear.” Languishing in detention for months on end, denied proper medical care and deprived of the opportunity to spend time with their loved ones, many immigrants eventually choose voluntary departure rather than remain in such conditions.

The lack of available care commensurate to Tania’s ongoing health needs poses a real threat to her physical wellbeing.

Cristian noted that many of the other immigrants being detained alongside his mother just want to get out—through whatever means necessary. “According to my mom, most people just celebrate when people leave, either for release or deportation,” he said. And beyond the emotional toll of prolonged detention, the lack of available care commensurate to Tania’s ongoing health needs poses a real threat to her physical wellbeing.

“That’s our fear,” Cristian said. “That’s why we’re asking for her release, so she can wait [for the decision] on the outside. Because there’s no way she can make it in there for that long.”

Piper French is a freelance journalist  based in Los Angeles. She has worked with immigration justice movements  in France, Greece, and New England.