How one L.A. father’s arrest put an entire neighborhood on edge

How one L.A. father’s arrest put an entire neighborhood on edge

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Originally published by LA Times

The air-conditioning system pumped cold air even during frigid winter nights on the high desert. To fall asleep under his thin blanket, Romulo Avelica Gonzalez, then 48, wore two pairs of socks, wrapped his feet in bath towels and tried to bring his mind to a warmer place.

In the blur between consciousness and dreaming, he found himself at home in Lincoln Heights, walking through his living room and kitchen, into the bedroom of his three youngest daughters, their breath rising and falling, fast asleep.

He woke up on a bunk bed behind bars.

After 25 years in California, Avelica was stuck in immigration detention, wondering when, or if, he would be reunited with his family.

Until that morning last year, he was part of the largely anonymous army of immigrant workers who are the economic backbone of Southern California — cooking for nearly minimum wage to support his family’s modest life. Then, his arrest made him national news, the subject of protests, vigils, prayers and countless articles.

The ensuing months-long saga would galvanize a family and spread fear in one of L.A.’s oldest neighborhoods, becoming a very public test case of President Trump’s immigration crackdown. Many in Lincoln Heights wanted to know: What would happen to Romulo Avelica Gonzalez?

Yuleni, right, and her classmates from Academia Avance charter school gather outside Los Angeles Superior Court to support Yuleni’s father, Romulo Avelica Gonzalez. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

In the back of his mind, he had known that federal authorities were after him.

Seven years after illegally walking across the border at Tijuana, Avelica was busted for driving with a stolen vehicle registration tag he had bought from a friend — a common crime among immigrants without legal status, who at the time were not permitted to drive. And in 2008, he was convicted of drunk driving, setting off deportation proceedings.

In 2016, his family heard a knock at their door. They peeked out a window to see eight immigration agents telling Avelica to come outside. He declined. They didn’t have a warrant.

“We’ll get you someday,” he remembers an agent telling him.

The family stayed at his sister’s apartment for the next two months for fear the agents would return.

After a year, Avelica began to relax again.

His life was his family. He trained his daughters in soccer and rode his bike alongside them as they prepared for the Los Angeles Marathon. He followed their schoolwork like a hawk, rewarding them for A’s with seafood dinners at El Rincon de Guayabitos.

Avelica with his daughters Jocelyn, Fatima and Yuleni when they were young.

On Feb. 28, 2017, after a late shift prepping food and washing dishes at a Mexican restaurant, he woke up at 6:30 a.m. to drive his girls to school. He and his wife, Norma, had just dropped off their youngest, Yuleni, then 12, and were headed to Academia Avance’s eighth-grade campus with Fatima, 13, when he saw lights flash behind him.

He felt a tingle of fear and wondered why he was being pulled over.

An unmarked black sedan pulled in front of him while another nosed in behind, forcing him to stop.

An agent wearing a windbreaker with “POLICE” written on it told him he was with ICE — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The agent told Avelica he had a final order of deportation. Avelica said that as he stepped out, the agent pushed him against the car and handcuffed him.

He turned to his family and yelled, “Record this!” After all of the videos showing police shootings, he wanted proof of the moment.

Fatima filmed with her phone as she broke down, fearing she’d never see her Apá again. Her barely restrained sobs underscored the video, low and unrelenting.

“Don’t cry,” Norma told her. “We have to be strong.”

As Avelica sat in the agents’ car, his grim long-term reality sunk in. They told him he’d be on a bus to Tijuana that afternoon.

Instead, his family mobilized. Just 15 minutes before his bus was to take off for Mexico, a lawyer filed for an emergency stay of his deportation. Authorities diverted him to the Adelanto Detention Facility near Victorville.

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