The day Rómulo Avélica was arrested, Feb 28th, was also the day some commentators said " Donald Trump became president” by delivering his first 'State of the Union' address to Congress.
Among the supposedly presidential things Trump was lauded for saying was: “As we speak tonight, we are removing gang members, drug dealers, and criminals that threaten our communities.”
But a few hours earlier on the other side of the country, in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles, a very different story was unfolding. Avélica, far from threatening his community, was about to inspire it to rally behind him.
On the day of his detainment, Rómulo left his home as usual at dawn. Six months would pass before he would come back. An undocumented immigrant, Rómulo was arrested by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents while dropping his two youngest daughters off at school. The anguished cries of his daughter Fatima, who was 13 years old at the time, could be heard throughout the video of her father’s arrest she captured on her phone.
The dramatic footage was widely shared on social media, and Rómulo's case became an early flash point in the debate over ICE’s increasingly audacious immigration arrests. Whatever wider discussion the video would spark, for the Avélicas, Rómulo’s arrest marked the start of their family's private pain.
Rómulo's 75th day detainment was especialy hard, his wife Norma Avélica, the family's matriarch, recalled to me. It was Sunday, May 14th, Mother’s Day. Throughout the Avélica’s ordeal Norma has been reluctant to speak to the media. And with good reason: ICE has a history of pursuing undocumented immigrants who speak out publicly.
The second week in May is a special one in the Avélica family. Fatima’s and Romulo’s birthdays are one day apart. This year their birthdays fell on Mother’s day weekend. And it just so happens that it coincided with the Avélica's 28th wedding anniversary.
Like they do every year, the entire family gathered for the occasion that Sunday. With one exception. Norma’s husband was in an orange jumpsuit sitting in a small cell a 2-hour drive away. At the time, the odds of Rómulo avoiding deportation seemed daunting; the prospect of life without him was a very real possibility she and her daughters were facing.
“We couldn't enjoy the food, because we kept thinking about what sad meal Rómulo was getting in that moment,” she told me.
Fatima, who had celebrated her previous 13 birthdays jointly with her father, would welcome her 14th year acutely aware of his absence, said Norma:
“Rómulo is the life of the party, the quickest to smile, to bring people together, to celebrate me and my daughters… not having him there was....” after a long pause, she finished, “it was difficult... very very difficult.”
Rómulo did manage to get an anniversary gift to his wife- a DIY ring that had been crafted out of whatever items were handy at the detention center.
“As a parent, you want to shield your children from your pain. I didn’t want them to see what I was feeling,"his wife said. "I would wait until my daughters weren’t looking to cry. Tears were contagious. I would go to my room alone and just cry," she added.
On Romulo’s 184th and final day of detention, ICE’s attorney tried to stop him from joining his family on the basis that he was a flight risk. That was the argument they used against a father of five who has lived in the same house for 22 years. Over ICE’s objections, the judge granted Romulo’s release on bond.
The reunion with his family just steps from the detention center was heavy with emotion. His daughter Brenda was the first to get to him, wrapping Rómulo in a tight embrace that was soon joined by the rest of his family.
In many ways, Rómulo’s last day at the ICE detention facility in Adelanto, Ca. marks the end of the beginning of this journey for the Avélicas. Romulo and his family still must live with the threat of deportation looming. As Alan Diamante, the Avelica’s lawyer who argued for Rómulo’s release at Wednesday’s bond hearing told me, “the case could be over tomorrow or it could drag on for years. We just don’t know.”
Uncertainty is in ample supply. The next order of business for Diamante is securing a work authorization for Rómulo. Obtaining that permit is far from a given, and without it Rómulo cannot help support his family financially. Already Fatima’s older sister Jocelyn, who is only 20 herself, had to put her college plans on hold so that she can work full time and help pay the bills.
So things may not be back to normal, but at least Rómulo is back home. And whatever challenges lie ahead for the Avélicas, they are grateful to be facing them together.
Perhaps as a sign that their luck has turned, Rómulo’s last day of detention arrived just in time for Norma’s birthday. She calls her husband's return “the best gift I could ask for.”
“And how is that pozole (Mexican soup) going to taste at your party?” I asked.
“Never better!” she answered, laughing.