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Army officer returns home to San Diego to say goodbye to mother before deportation

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Officers. (ICE/Released)

The Cruz family’s home on Thursday evening could have been the scene of any family reunited for the holiday season.

The grandchildren played in the yard with their uncle, an Army officer who had returned home that morning. The grandmother doted on the youngest, a toddler. The air inside her home’s newly erected wooden fence echoed their laughter.

But mixed in with the joy of togetherness was the knowledge that right after the holidays, the family matriarch Rocio Rebollar Gomez, 50, will have to leave the United States.

Rebollar Gomez is waiting for a miracle, her only remaining option after all legal avenues for keeping her in the United States have been exhausted. But she believes it will come before Immigration and Customs Enforcement requires her to leave the country on January 2.

“The only gift that we want this year is for grandma to be here,” Rebollar Gomez said in Spanish.

Meanwhile, her son 2nd Lt. Gibram Cruz, 30, will spend about three days at home from his post in Arizona as an Army intelligence officer. He arrived Thursday morning at the San Diego airport to a swarm of hugs and tears where his family waited for him at the curb. He leaves again on Sunday morning.

He will not have any more time off over the holidays to be with his family, including his mother’s birthday on December 29.

“I’m here essentially to say goodbye to my mom,” he said.

As an intelligence officer, the process to get permission to travel outside the U.S. for personal reasons is long and complicated, he said, which will make it difficult for him to visit his mother after her deportation.

Rebollar Gomez tried applying for a special program that protects family members of U.S. military personnel while they serve, but that program is discretionary, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denied the request at the beginning of December.

When that happened, ICE informed Rebollar Gomez she would have to leave the United States in January.

USCIS has declined to comment on the case.

“The immigration laws of the United States allow an alien to pursue relief from removal; however, once they have exhausted all due process and appeals, they remain subject to a final order of removal from an immigration judge and that order must be carried out,” ICE said when asked about the case.

Rebollar Gomez’s attorney, Tessa Cabrera, asked ICE for discretion, and several members of Congress have told the family they would do the same. So far, ICE has maintained its order that Rebollar Gomez must leave.

“Right now the case is in ICE’s hands,” Cabrera said. “We’re waiting for a miracle. There’s not more that I can do as an attorney to help her.”

Though she has no criminal history, Rebollar Gomez’s immigration history is complicated.

She first came to the U.S. in 1988. In the mid-90s, she was picked up in an immigration raid at the hotel where she worked when she was about seven months pregnant with her youngest daughter and found herself back in Mexico that same day.

With two children who needed her in the U.S., she quickly returned, crossing illegally again into the country.

She was removed from the United States again twice in the mid-2000s.

ICE confirmed the details of Rebollar Gomez’s immigration history.

“Ms. Rebollar is currently pending departure to Mexico in accordance with federal law,” said Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for the agency.

The memory of immigration officials coming to the family home on a Saturday morning to take his mother away still haunts son Cruz, who was in high school at the time. He remembers becoming homeless during the ordeal.

Each time that she’s been sent back, Rebollar Gomez has returned to her children and rebuilt her life again from the beginning. She managed to buy a house again a couple of years ago that she’s been slowly fixing up the way she wants it.

After college, Cruz gave up a dream of going to law school to enlist in the Army. He hoped that gesture of service to the U.S. would mean that the country would allow his mother to stay.

When she was detained again by ICE in 2018, around the same time that his four years was up, he decided to take a commission and remain in the military.

“I joined to serve the country and keep my family safe,” Cruz said in the attorney’s office. “Now, I’m facing dangers here on my home front.”

Cruz and his two sisters are grappling with how to prepare logistically for Rebollar Gomez’s deportation. She is afraid to return to Acapulco, her hometown in Mexico, because of the cartel violence that has overtaken the city.

In 2018, the city had the third highest number of homicides in Mexico and the highest homicide rate of the country’s 10 most violent cities, higher even than Tijuana, according to a University of San Diego report.

That violence has already touched Rebollar Gomez’s family. Her brother was abducted by a cartel, and though the family paid thousands of dollars in extortion money for his return, his body has never been found.

The family is worried that Rebollar Gomez’s ties to the U.S., and particularly to the military, will make her a target.

“She would be an easy paycheck for them,” Cruz said, referring to the cartels. “How am I supposed to keep her safe?”

Rebollar Gomez has refused to talk about the what-ifs with her family, but by Thursday evening, she acknowledged that she would have to follow God’s plan for her, whatever that may be.

“It’s worth it,” she said, sitting in her yard watching her family. “The life of our children is worth it. All the sacrifices are worth it. When you see your children here, well, studying, and you look back, you see it was worth it.”


© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune