“I started worrying if I would have parents when I came home,” he recalls.
On those bus rides home, he would sit with his anxiety until his bus came to his stop.
Some days, he would see his mom and dad standing there, and feel immediate relief that they hadn’t been deported. Other days, his mother would wait alone, because his father had to work at his construction job, and the boy would carry his fears with him until his dad walked in the door.
“It would be really scary not knowing if he was at work — or somewhere else,” the now 21-year-old tells me when we talk on a recent morning. “There is still that subconscious fear that has stuck with me. It’s never gone away.”
In the past week, Romero has been able to celebrate on a personal level two nationally recognized victories: Prince William County’s decision to not renew its 287(g) agreement with ICE and a Supreme Court ruling that blocks President Trump’s attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that offers protections to immigrants who were brought to the country as children.
Romero, who is a DACA recipient, stood in front of the Supreme Court on the day that decision was made. At one point, he took a knee and raised a fist in the air. A line of people, who, like him, had worked with the immigrant advocacy group CASA toward that moment, did the same.
It’s a posture that has been seen over and over again in recent weeks as streets across the country have filled with people protesting police brutality and other racial inequities. The push to “Defund the Police,” which has grown from those protests, may seem a distant fight from the effort to “Abolish ICE,” which immigrant rights groups have demanded, but many of the activists who are on the front lines right now, pushing for change, see the two as connected. They see them as two cries in the same battle.
What “Defund the Police” and “Abolish ICE” share is an acknowledgment that bad law enforcement practices, no matter what the badge looks like, unjustly separate families. They leave children not knowing whether their dads (or moms) will make it home, not because of what they did that day, but because of who they are.
Both also directly affect black immigrants.
In rallies that took place before the Prince William County decision, brown hands held white signs declaring “Black Lives Matter.” And in the hours after the Supreme Court decision, black activists called for an end to how the country enforces immigration. The system, which has seen in-custody deaths of adults and children, criminalizes people for entering the country while not providing clear paths to citizenship.
“These movements should be very linked, and I believe they are getting more and more linked as we are fighting together,” says Luis Aguilar, the Virginia state director for CASA. He is a DACA recipient and has spent years working toward seeing Prince William County end its agreement with ICE.
He is also Afro-Mexican. His dad comes from a region of Mexico where runaway slaves settled.
“When I see things like what happened to George Floyd, it goes beyond the personal,” the 33-year-old says of the police-custody killing that has sparked weeks of protests. “It goes to a space where you start thinking about why these things are happening, and you realize that currently society isn’t in a place where it truly respects each person as a human being.”
Aguilar was 15 and living in Falls Church when his father was deported.
“I would not want any other child to experience the results of a broken immigration system,” he says. “I think we owe it to society to fix the system.”
The decision by Prince William lawmakers not to renew its agreement with ICE when it expires at the end of the month received a blip of attention compared with the Supreme Court decision. But it is a significant development for the Washington region. That program changed the county. It created a hostile atmosphere, and not just for undocumented immigrants. It forced Latino families to leave the county and some to avoid calling the police, even when they needed help.
I know this not only from studies that have been conducted over the years, but also from personal observation.
When I came to The Washington Post, it wasn’t as a columnist. I was hired to cover the Prince William County Police Department. I had been in that job less than a year when county lawmakers approved 287(g), which gave law enforcement officials some of the same powers as immigration enforcement agents. They did that despite hearing concerns from the police department that it would erode community trust, prevent immigrants from reporting crimes and require a whole lot of money.
When Corey Stewart was running for a Senate seat, I wrote about what I saw and experienced after the crackdown happened — including how a man yelled at me, “Go back to your country!” — to show the intangible ways in which it failed the community. (And for those who want to point to it as a solution to crime, Prince William Police Chief Barry M. Barnard was recently quoted as saying, “I’m not seeing any hard data where the 287 program has been shown to be the direct cause of any measurable crime reduction.”)
Instead, it left people feeling scared and targeted — and it did that to residents who weren’t even out of elementary school yet.
Angel Romero says for him, “that moment just changed everything.”
“It changed my personality,” he says. “I used to be a really talkative kid, and I had like a switch, where I became very closed off and introverted.”
He says his family moved out to Stafford County in the middle of the school year because they no longer felt safe. He believes they were one of the first families to leave because he recalls seeing many students from his old school enrolling in his new one.
Romero says he is still processing what the two recent victories mean. The DACA win makes his place in this country more safe, but he recognizes that many undocumented immigrants remain just as vulnerable as they were before it. One of them is the dad he and his sister will celebrate on Sunday with a barbecue.
“He sacrificed so much, just so we could be here and live the life that we’re living right now,” Romero says. “Since he worked in construction, he would spend long hours in the sun or the extreme cold, just so we could have clothes each year.”
His dad, he says, has made it clear he doesn’t want presents for Father’s Day.
He just wants his family to be together.
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