An immigration law expert says Ana Romero Rivera, who was awaiting deportation this August, should have been held in the Franklin County jail for only 48 hours for immigration officials to pick her up or release her from custody. Instead she was held for nearly two more weeks and found hanging to death in a jail cell.
Interviews with federal officials and immigration attorneys suggest thatRomero, who had pleaded guilty to immigration charges and was waiting deportation back to El Salvador, was placed in limbo for almost two weeks, where she was no one's priority. Romero, 44, was found hanging in an isolation cell at the Franklin County Regional Jail on Aug. 21. She was pronounced dead early the next day.
Federal regulations, as well as detainer forms from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, more commonly known as ICE, state that a person slated for deportation or being investigated for removal from the U.S. can only be held by local jails for 48 hours excluding weekends and holidays. Detainers are used by ICE to hold people in jail for a few days so ICE agents can take them into custody. In Romero's case, when agents didn't come to get her, she should have been released from custody, at the latest, four days later because of a weekend, according to those regulations.
In other states, more than 70 people slated for deportation have died in custody in recent years.
Congress has demanded that more information be made public about the dozens of deaths in other jails and prisons among those waiting deportation.
Instead of being released, Romero was held 11 more days. Then, on Aug. 21, she was found hanging in a cell, the night before ICE agents were going to pick her up. She was pronounced dead early the following day, according to a medical examiner's report.
Now, three months later, it remains unclear just what happened during those 11 days that Romero remained at the jail. The state medical examiner's final autopsy report released last month confirmed a preliminary finding that she hanged herself. In addition to finding that Romero died of asphyxiation as a result of the hanging, the report said she had abrasions on both hands.
Franklin County Jailer Billy Roberts did not return a telephone call Wednesday. He has previously declined interview requests, citing a pending investigation into Romero's death by Franklin County Coroner Will Harrod.
In an interview Wednesday, Harrod said a state police detective delivered to him Monday an approximately 500-page investigative report that KSP compiled on Romero's death.
After he reviews the report, Harrod said he will meet with Commonwealth's Attorney Larry Cleveland. Cleveland has said he is relying on the state police's report for his review because his office does not have the manpower to conduct its own investigation.
The prosecutor was in a trial Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.
Romero's brother-in-law, Mario Aguilar, says Romero was placed in isolation because she refused to eat and Romero told her family in telephone conversations that she was sick. Aguilar, who runs a Mexican restaurant in Shelbyville, said in an interview Wednesday that he met with Cleveland and Harrod two weeks ago and they told him they were waiting on the state police report to complete their reviews.
Aguilar said he and other family members are frustrated because federal and jail officials are giving differing accounts of who had responsibility for Romero and at what point.
"It's been very confusing," Aguilar said.
A candlelight vigil is scheduled at the Franklin County jail Friday night to mark the three month anniversary of Romero's death and to push for a speedier investigation into her death.
Also, Aguilar said that a funeral for his sister-in-law is tentatively scheduled for December 3 in Shelbyville.
Romero came to Kentucky from El Salvador three years ago. She was arrested Jan. 14 by state police after giving federal immigration officials a false identification card. Romero's deportation had previously been ordered, and she disregarded that order to remain in the U.S., where she cleaned houses in Shelby County.
Romero was held for several months after her arrest, first in Shelby County and then Franklin County. Federal prosecutors offered to sentence her to time already served for a guilty plea on possession of false ID card and to drop the charge of remaining in the U.S. unlawfully in exchange for her deportation. Romero agreed.
On Aug. 7, she pleaded guilty and was sentenced. She seemed content with the decision and happy to go home and see family, her court-appointed attorney said.
While her case was still in federal court, she was physically held in the Franklin County jail, but she was technically in federal custody and the responsibility of U.S. Marshals, officials said. When her case concluded and she was sentenced on Aug. 7, U.S. Marshals sent an e-mail to ICE agents in Kentucky notifying them it was time to pick up Romero, said Tom Clay, the supervisory deputy for the U.S. Marshals in the Eastern District of Kentucky.
Clay said he doesn't know why ICE agents waited until Aug. 22 to pick up Romero. He said his office moved on to other prisoners and other cases after sending the e-mail notification and considered Romero to be out of their purview.
ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said agents make every effort to take into custody a person held on a detainer within 48 hours but did not offer any reason why it took much longer to pick up Romero. The agency's position is that Romero was not in ICE custody when she died, therefore the agency can't comment on her death.
Leopold, the immigration attorney, thinks the Marshals could have been more vocal about Romero. He suspects that if the Marshals had threatened to order Romero's release, ICE would have figured out a way to pick her up sooner.
Clay asked how much his office should be expected to do.
"How far do we have to carry out this notification process? We did what were were supposed to do. I can't answer to why they didn't do their job," he said. "It was obviously a mistake and unfortunately it had a bad end."
Reach Steve Lannen at (859) 231-1328 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1328 and Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3409