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?
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.
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.
Hundreds of people are arrested by immigration authorities each year in Los Angeles. But Avelica was different in one key way: His daughter had recorded it.
A week later, dozens of people with “Free Romulo” signs protested outside the immigration court downtown. His daughters did interviews with media across the country. Local officials, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, called for Avelica’s release.
On his first day at the Adelanto Detention Facility, Avelica pictured his future: back in his hometown of San Juan de Abajo in the coastal state of Nayarit, sitting alone, despondent, on a rustic bench outside his late parents’ empty brick house.
In detention, the shower water was scalding but the cells were freezing, even on the hottest summer days. Avelica awoke every day in agony, his joints swollen and stiff. He paced the 13-foot length of the cell and did push-ups against a sink.
He shared the cell with three other men. He became friends with one of them, a Haitian asylum seeker named Felix.
Felix had no money to buy food at the commissary or call his family, so he made trinkets to sell to other detainees. Using scraps of paper, plastic bags and instant-soup labels, he fashioned keychains in the shape of huarache sandals, boots and hearts.
He taught his cellmate to do it, and the craft work and journal writing helped Avelica get through the long days.
“Here in the center, there are many people from different countries around the world,” Avelica wrote. “Many don’t have enough to even make a phone call. They go a long time without hearing from their family, whether they’re doing well or badly, if they’re eating or not.”
On May 13, still in his cell, he noted a landmark — his 49th birthday — in his journal. He wrote that he was happy his family was healthy, that he got to talk to them on the phone a few times a day and see them every two weeks.
But that day, he added, his cellmate Felix learned his wife had been murdered in Haiti.
“Imagine the desperation of the young man, of going crazy,” he wrote. “God help him overcome this.”
At home, Norma, who also entered the country illegally, struggled to keep her stress hidden from the girls.
She rarely left the house alone. When venturing out to buy groceries or pay bills, she frequently peered over her shoulder.
When Fatima and Yuleni told her they were too depressed to run the L.A. Marathon, Norma was heartbroken. She didn’t want to burden her husband with it, but she knew he could change their minds.
“My life might be on hold,” he told them over the phone, “but I don’t want yours to be.”
They both completed the marathon. From detention, Avelica watched it on the TV news in the recreation area.
School leaders mobilized around the family. Administrators held an assembly to help students process what had happened. Teachers encouraged other students whose parents were in the U.S. illegally to establish contingency plans. They organized “know your rights” sessions.
The family paid rent using about $4,000 from community fundraisers. Another $20,000 from an online fundraiser went toward legal costs.
Fatima and Yuleni visited Capitol Hill a month after Avelica’s arrest to ask the Senate to fight Trump’s immigration enforcement efforts.
Along with their older sisters, Brenda, 25, and Jocelyn, 20, they did hundreds of interviews — Univision, National Public Radio, National Geographic, Teen Vogue.
As the months passed, Brenda started talking about her father in the past tense.
“I know that he’s alive,” she explained. “But he’s not here. He feels really far.”
The last time Avelica had been in Mexico, he was 23, living in his hometown, San Juan de Abajo. He worked as a hotel accountant, making just enough to support him and his wife.
A relative visiting from Lincoln Heights told Avelica that, in the U.S., he could make in a week what he earned in a month in Mexico. The man, a legal U.S. resident, planned to go back the next day and offered to take Avelica to the border.
They set off at 4 a.m., leaving Norma behind, and drove to Tijuana. Avelica sent for Norma three months later, after he found a job and a place to live in Los Angeles. She crossed the same way, with the help of a smuggler.
They found a two-bedroom bungalow near Lincoln High School and started a family. They decorated the house with photos — of themselves as a young couple, when Avelica’s mustache was jet black, then baby pictures, then professional shots of their eldest daughters’ quinceañeras.
Avelica needed a car to get to work at the downtown L.A. produce district before dawn. But he couldn’t drive around without registration tags, so he bought some stolen ones for $10. A month later, a police officer pulled him over for failing to yield to a pedestrian. He admitted the tags weren’t his, spent three days in jail and paid a fine.
In 2008, he was pulled over while leaving a bar. His two Breathalyzer results were just above the legal limit, at 0.08% and 0.09% blood-alcohol content, according to the arrest report.
That second conviction landed him in deportation proceedings. He applied for a cancellation of removal, but an immigration judge denied it in 2013.
The next year, Avelica filed paperwork for an appeal with someone who claimed he was an immigration attorney. Avelica said the man ran off with his money and legal documents.
At Adelanto, Avelica wrote on July 5 that detainees had started a hunger strike to lower bond amounts and improve medical care.
A July 11 journal entry detailed a grimmer event: “Another person hanged himself,” he wrote. “Lost asylum.” It was one of five suicide attempts at the facility over the course of eight months.
As spring turned into summer, there were signs of hope.
At her eighth-grade graduation in June, Fatima was presented with an award from City Councilman Gil Cedillo for giving a voice to the children of immigrants.
Her graduation was a deep source of pride for Avelica. He lay on his bunk and cried about not being there to watch.
But that same month, Avelica’s lawyers contested his misdemeanor convictions, arguing that he hadn’t been adequately advised about the immigration consequences. He pleaded guilty instead to a registration violation and speed exhibition, vehicle code violations that ordinarily would not make someone a priority for deportation.
In early August, an immigration appeals court tossed out his deportation order and sent the case back to the lower court. Because of massive backlogs, it could be years before a judge enters a new decision, which buys Avelica time to pursue another path to legal status.
He and Norma submitted applications for U visas, which are available to victims of crime and their immediate family members, based on a crime Norma was the victim of in December 2016. U visa holders can eventually apply for U.S. citizenship.
Avelica’s lawyer, Alan Diamante, said the suspect in the crime, a stranger, was charged with sexual battery and false imprisonment. Norma declined to talk about the case.
Diamante asked the immigration court to freeze Avelica’s case while the U visa application is pending. Meanwhile, Avelica and Norma applied for work permits.
August also marked Avelica’s six months in detention, after which he was entitled to an automatic bond hearing. He emerged from the detention center Aug. 30 to a flurry of cameras, in the same salsa-stained work clothes he wore when he went in.
The family’s first stop was a Catholic church near their home so Avelica could thank Jude the Apostle, the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes.
Their second stop was the Lincoln Heights restaurant where he had worked. He wasted no time filling taco orders from customers in line and exchanging slaps on the back with co-workers. His boss said the job was still his if he wanted it.
His life wasn’t exactly back to normal. He wore an ankle monitor for three months after his release and then remained on house arrest for several hours every week until January.
For months, he spoke almost weekly at pro-immigrant events, advocating for California’s “sanctuary state” law, the end of collaboration between the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and federal immigration authorities, and the end of immigrant detention. People stopped him to ask what it’s like to be famous.
Being home without the imminent fear of deportation meant he could go back to driving his girls to school and helping them train for soccer and track on weekends.
In October, on his first day at work in eight months, Avelica was stationed alone in the back of the small family restaurant. He quartered limes, chopped lettuce and tomatoes and sliced chicken breasts before drenching them in a homemade teriyaki sauce.
Co-workers asked him what detention was like.
“I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone,” he told them. “This is life, even though it’s work.”
Credits: Production by Andrea Roberson