This summer, police in Gwinnett County, Georgia, pulled over Cristian Padilla Romero's mother Tania for failure to yield while making a left turn. She was arrested for driving without a license, and then, because she is undocumented, she was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Now, 10 years after a judge first ordered Tania removed from the United States, she is on the verge of being deported back to Honduras.
Since August, Tania has been held at Irwin County Detention Center in south Georgia, a for-profit facility about 200 miles south of Atlanta where, according to a 2017 report from Project South , detainees are paid $1 for a day's work. The family is circulating a petition to get their mother, who is recovering from stage 4 cancer, released from detention.
This is Cristian's story.
My mother finished—or, stopped receiving—chemo radiation in late summer 2017. She was on medication after that. It was an oral cancer. I believe when it was first diagnosed in late December 2016, it was at stage 2. It rapidly grew to stage 4 within weeks if not a month or so, which is what prompted the immediate surgery and the therapy. That went on until late summer of the next year.
Before her chemo radiation, she had a major surgery around her neck, which basically cut almost 180 degrees from one side of the back of her neck to the other side, all the way around her neck. And parts of her mouth. And because she needed therapy soon after, her scars weren't able to heal, and were probably worsened. Since then she's lost full mobility over her mouth and jaw. She can't open her mouth as much as she could before. That was very frustrating at first for her, it was very painful. Now the pain has mostly gone away but the full mobility has not.
She's still not fully recovered in terms of her general health. She's lost a lot of weight. A lot of her strength as well. She still needs to be resting most of the time.
She did miss an appointment in September [with her oncologist]. That was one of the main justifications earlier on when we filed the stay of removal. We argued that she had humanitarian reasons to be released, to see her doctor. It was rejected.
[Her removal order] is being enforced now because she was arrested and handed over to ICE. This is a fundamental shift in politics, from the Obama emphasis on criminals and not targeting non-criminal immigrants. The county where she was arrested does have an agreement with ICE to hold people. Atlanta proper has a system in place where the local police doesn't work with ICE, but the surrounding counties, which are very conservative, do have that. That's the main reason why she was held. We paid her bail to try to get her out, but she was put on hold and turned over to ICE.
ICE is now at a point where anyone it comes across, it's removing, or attempts to remove. This is the difference between an Obama-era policy, where a lot of people could be arrested for no driver's license, but ICE wouldn't necessarily seek them out if they didn't have a criminal record—although it still happened—whereas now it's anybody who's caught.
In the detention center the conditions are just horrible in general, but specifically for her. Recently we learned that the doctors there told her that she has a Vitamin B12 deficiency, almost dangerously low levels, and she went almost two weeks without treatment. It wasn't until she told us that our lawyer called somebody at the center to pressure them to give her the medication that she needed. She's now receiving it, but she's still B12 deficient. It's not like she's any better, but at least she's started the medication. Because of that, she's been very tired and even weaker than she would have been.
The lights are on most of the day, even late at night. I think from maybe 1 a.m. to 4 a.m., the lights are turned off. It's an open center, there's a whole bunch of bunk beds, and so people develop different sleeping habits. A lot of people are awake at night and sleep during the day, and vice versa. So she's not getting the rest she needs.
They do allow her outside for a certain amount of time, but she receives no accommodations for her condition. They're only given 10 minutes to eat meals. There's no way that she can eat everything she needs—like I said, she doesn't have full mobility of her jaw. Also a lot of her teeth have been damaged or lost because of the therapy, so she can't chew on hard items, and definitely not as fast as she needs to eat in 10 minutes.
We're able to speak daily. We add funds to her phone, but there's also a video chat option now. It costs about the same as the phone call. For a 15-minute call it's about four dollars.
My oldest nephew, I think he's seven, I'm not sure how my sister talks to him about this. The other ones are way younger. They're still sort of toddlers. They definitely notice a missing presence, because my mom is a big presence in all of our lives, especially with her grandchildren. They've gone to visit her. There's a glass window, they tap on the window when they see her. Especially one of them, because she was living with my sister for a while, she basically came to know her as a second mother if not her main mother. It was very heartbreaking for them, just seeing the lack of her presence.
It's hard to imagine [what kind of treatment she would receive in Honduras]. There's a wide amount of research and reporting on the general political situation in Honduras. The way that has infiltrated into the medical system is that the president has been implicated in looting public funds that were meant for social security, (which is where the medical system gets money) for his campaign. [Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez denies these allegations.] All the forms of outright corruption that have seriously debilitated if not destroyed the public medical system. There might be private centers that have somewhat adequate resources, but I doubt that there's anywhere near enough resources for something like cancer. If she were to go back, and her cancer were to return, or if she were to need any sort of special treatment, she would not be able to get it there.
I was very young when my dad left Honduras. He was the first one to leave. I think I was six months or so. And then my mother a little bit later. I came here when I was seven. It wasn't one of those cases where my parents never told me I was undocumented, and I came to find out that I was. I think I always knew.
As a kid, you know when your parents are doing something—I knew I was making a big trip, and that I was going to a new country that didn't necessarily want us or appreciate us or would be friendly to us. I can't recall a specific conversation with my parents where they were like, "Hey, by the way, you're undocumented." I just knew I was in a place where I wasn't wanted. Legally or as a person.
I was an undergrad in southern California, and, especially after Trump was elected, I was at many rallies, and I saw high school students who were DACA—or some who weren't even DACA—speaking at rallies, saying, you know: "I'm undocumented, and we need to fight this." Obviously you have to be strategic, you have to be careful, but it gets to a point where the movement is more important than the individual.
Immigrants who happen to be undocumented, we just sort of cope and work through it. If my mom's the one who has her freedom taken away, I still have my freedom, so I need to do what I need to be doing. I have my freedom and I have to take advantage of that. To use it for her, to advocate for her.
In a statement from ICE received after publication, the agency would not comment on the individual case but said that "ICE provides safe, humane, clean, professionally run and appropriate conditions of confinement for individuals in its custody. ICE has a series of detention standards that ensure individuals with medical conditions or other specific needs receive exceptional care while in our custody, which exceed the standards of most local jails and prisons."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the length of a call that $4 would buy. It's 15 minutes, not 50.