A big crowd gathered at Bet Torah synagogue on Tuesday to rally support for a beloved member of their community, a longtime custodian who faces deportation back to Mexico.
Armando Rojas crossed the border illegally 30 years ago when he was 18. A father of two sons who are U.S. citizens, Rojas has been working for Bet Torah, a conservative synagogue in Mount Kisco, New York, for 20 years.
“My family and I had an average life. We were like any other traditional Mexican family,” Armando Jr., Rojas’ first son, said at the rally. “To me, honestly, it was my perfect, little family and I loved it. … After my dad was taken from us, everything just changed.”
In February, Rojas was arrested when a fight broke out at Veracruz Restaurant in White Plains. Though he was not involved and was cleared of all criminal charges, Rojas’ name was passed on, along with those of others who were arrested at the bar, to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Rabbi Aaron Brusso of Bet Torah synagogue.
Weeks after the arrest, Rojas was sent back to Tijuana, Mexico, without a cellphone, ID, bankcard, or cash. After many efforts to bring him back to America, Rojas returned as a detainee within the U.S. system for seeking asylum and has been jailed in Albany since June. Though his first claim for asylum was rejected, Rojas and his family hopes that the next hearing will bring about a different outcome.
Rojas is an unassuming, loyal, and sweet co-worker with a quiet presence, said Brusso. The custodian greeted children with a hearty laugh and many high fives.
“He was not just a custodian, but he took seriously our mission of building community and engaging people,” Brusso added. “He knew everyone’s’ names—kids’ names, adults’ names.”
The synagogue had this video made to share Armando’s story to more people, hoping that perhaps even the judges who may hear his final appeal will see it.
His endearing character is what made Rojas’ sudden deportation so devastating for the community. Tuesday’s candlelight vigil was focused on Armando and the community’s sense of loss, Brusso said, not messages with “political overtones.”
“It’s hard not to see the bigger issues because that’s what we know, but it’s simply that we have a loss, and this is not right,” Brusso said.
Perhaps behind what makes it increasingly harder for asylum seekers like Rojas to be accepted is Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ strict criteria for asylum. In June, Sessions ruled that people fleeing from fear of domestic abuse or gang violence do not qualify for asylum.
Rojas has a real fear of return to the country. According to Brusso, when Rojas was in Mexico earlier this year, he received a threatening phone call from a cartel, warning Rojas that they were aware he was back. A number of years ago, his nephews were killed by the same cartel members. However, Sessions’ ruling that gang violence does not count as grounds for asylum is an obstacle to Rojas’ claim.*
Despite how bleak the situation may seem, Rojas’ family and the Bet Torah community are not planning on giving up.
“There’s no amount of exhaustion that would justify stopping everything we could do to try to fix [this],” Brusso said. “We need to give them their father back.”
Correction, Oct. 19, 2018: This article originally stated Rojas’ nephews were killed two years ago. It also stated that Rojas’ asylum claim had become ineffective in the face of Sessions’ ruling on gang violence as no longer a grounds for asylum. Rojas’ claim still has a chance based on other grounds.