The mother of a U.S. Army officer awoke Thursday to find hateful graffiti scrolled on the fence of her home in San Diego – the same day she was set to be deported after years of fighting to stay in the place she’s called home.
Rocio Rebollar Gomez, 51, who had not been allowed to leave her home since her request to stay in the country was recently denied, was bound for the Edward J. Schwartz Federal Office Building in downtown San Diego where she learned her fate: she must leave the United States, effective immediately.
By 11 a.m., she was back in Tijuana, Mexico.
She admitted to illegally entering into the U.S. three times since 1988. One of those times, she was eight months pregnant with her daughter, risking both of their lives to make it back to the U.S. to be with her other children.
"I had to come back to them; they were here and I couldn't leave them," she tearfully recounted in an interview with Telemundo 20 as she rode to court Thursday.
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Rebollar Gomez said she was sorry about how she entered the country, but she said she was desperate to give her children a better life.
NBC 7 and Telemundo 20 spoke with Rebollar Gomez minutes before she and her family drove to federal court.
She was visibly upset. She said the slur written on her outside fence had made a difficult day even worse.
“Last night, they vandalized our home. They put a message of racism, of hate,” Rebollar Gomez said, fighting back tears. “And, well, I don’t understand what is the – it’s incredible to me that in this century there are those feelings out there.”
The mother – whose son serves in the U.S. Army – still had a glimmer of hope as she hopped in the car and headed to court.
“We’re praying to God to work a miracle – that there’s a change – and that they don’t separate me from my family,” she cried. “Because, right now, that’s where this is headed.”
As Telemundo 20 rode with Rebollar Gomez, she talked about her life in the U.S., what lies ahead, and the deep sadness she feels having to leave her family.
Rebollar Gomez came to the U.S. illegally three decades ago. She settled in San Diego County, where she had been living what she considers the "American Dream" for the past 31 years.
Her dream included raising her children, watching them go to college and become contributing members of society.
She even got to watch her son become a U.S. Army officer and defend her very dream.
“I know that it’s a noble job, a heroic job. They put their lives at stake to defend our values, our liberties that you and I – and everyone living here – enjoy," she said of his service.
Rebollar Gomez saved up her money for seven years to buy her Lincoln Park home. It's the third home she's been able to buy in San Diego County over the past three decades.
“It’s really the American Dream, to have your own home like this,” she said. “The truth is that living in the U.S. is the American Dream. We pay a lot to live here because life here is safe.”
For Rebollar Gomez, leaving her California home Thursday was heavy.
“I left my home today and don’t know that I’ll be able to return,” she told Telemundo 20. "I'm scared for my life; for the lives of my children."
Still, she was holding out for a miracle.
“I’m sad. I’m disappointed,” she said. “But I still think this is a grand nation, and I won’t say it failed me yet. There’s still a chance I’ll have an opportunity. I still think God can work a miracle.”
Her son, U.S. Army Second Lieutenant Gibram Cruz, was hoping their family would be able to stay together because of his military status and a policy that allows soldiers' undocumented relatives an adjustment of their immigration status without having to leave the country.
But their request was ultimately denied.
“I’m literally handing her to the wolves down there (in Mexico). The attention that her case has received will, unfortunately, put a target on her back," he told NBC 7. "I don’t know where the system failed. Again, I joined to serve my country and to keep my family safe. And that’s not happening today."
Over the years, Rebollar Gomez has held multiple jobs, including cleaning offices, hotels, delivering newspapers, and selling clothes. She's always had more than one job, just to make ends meet for her family.
"When I grew up, we lived above a laundry mat. She worked hard. At that point, she was making over $100,000 a year. She was paying her taxes," Cruz said.
Rebollar Gomez arrived in the U.S. in 1988. She had been living in the U.S. longer than she ever lived in Mexico.
The first time she interacted with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was in 1995. She was removed from the country.
After that, she would re-enter the country illegally two more times.
She hired a lawyer who advised her to fix her papers and push to obtain legal status so she could keep working.
In 2018, she was detained by ICE after fighting an order for removal filed in 2009. In March 2019, she was arrested and detained for a month and a half.
She has no criminal record. Rebollar Gomez said her crime is being in the U.S. illegally.
“I still have hope that something is going to change. I don’t know – I have to keep my faith in God,” Rebollar Gomez said. “I still have hope.”
Rebollar Gomez said she was afraid to return to her hometown of Guerrero, Mexico, a city ruled by organized crime groups, who Rebollar Gomez claimed are willing to kill if they don't get what they want, her attorney Tessa Cabrera said.
In hopes of her client passing a reasonable threat interview, Cabera tried to prevent Rebollar Gomez' deportation through a specific type of asylum application. It was denied. She then applied for deferred action, and that was denied as well.
Rebollar Gomez hoped her son’s military status would stop her deportation, through the "Parole in Place" policy.
However, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services official who reviewed her case decided she wasn't protected by the policy and also denied her stay of removal request. Since her request was denied, Rebollar Gomez was not allowed to leave her home and was monitored through an ankle bracelet.
As Rebollar Gomez walked into the federal building, a group rallied outside to pray for her. Some of her family members held signs that read "Keep Abuelita Home," "Don't Separate Our Family," and "Military Mom Deserves to Stay."
Rebollar Gomez spoke in front of the group.
Cabrera said the family hoped for another chance for Rebollar Gomez.
"We still had hope that some form of discretion would be granted for her," she explained.
ICE told NBC 7 the agency's decision to deport Rebollar Gomez was based on her previous history with the agency, including her past detentions and deportations.
Her proceedings Thursday wrapped up fast.
“It just surprised me how quickly it happened," Cabrera told NBC 7 after learning her client was already back in Mexico.
Cabrera said there's not much the family can do from here on out, especially with Rebollar Gomez now back in Mexico.
Telemundo 20 reached Rebollar Gomez in Tijuana where she said that her removal from the U.S. took her by surprise as she waited for Senator Kamala Harris to intervene.
She thought she would be given more time when she arrived in downtown, however, she feels that immigration agents never intended to allow her to stay.
"They tricked my lawyer, and they tricked my son. I got in and they lowered me down to a basement, there they put me in a car and brought me here [Tijuana]," she said.
In Chaparral, Tijuana without her belongings, she called her son and her lawyer to help her. Because her son is in the military he has to ask for a special permit to visit Mexico, which can take up to 45 days.
"I don't really know Tijuana. The only place I've ever lived in is Acapulco," said Rebollar Gomez, who hoped her half-sister could give her a place to stay while she waited for her daughter to bring her some clothes.
ICE issued this statement Thursday just before Rebollar Gomez's deportation:
"On May 30, 2008, Rocio Rebollar-Gomez, 50, a citizen and national of Mexico, was ordered removed by an immigration judge in San Diego. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement subsequently executed the judicial order and removed her from U.S. to Mexico on June 20, 2009. Rebollar-Gomez later illegally reentered the U.S. at an unknown time/location, which is a felony act under federal law. On March 14, 2018, she was apprehended by the San Diego ICE Fugitive Operations Unit and processed for reinstatement of her removal order. Ms. Rebollar is currently pending departure to Mexico in accordance with federal law."