He lives in north Fulton County, voted for Donald Trump, and is married to an undocumented immigrant. Now, these parents find themselves supporting their son—who has cancer—from both sides of the Mexican border.
“The first time I saw her, I thought she was beautiful,” recalls Jason Rochester about Cecilia Gonzalez. “I loved her laugh.”
The pair have known each other more than 15 years and will have been married for 12 years this May. They have a five-year-old son, Ashton. But until the past year, he says, even some of their friends didn’t know of Cecilia’s immigration status. She had been in the United States for about 18 years, having immigrated illegally twice, and been caught and sent back to Mexico twice. Rochester was quick to note that she has never been in trouble with the law or had any type of government assistance.
The Obama administration’s deportation policy focused largely on criminals and those who threatened national security, granting relief to many young people and law-abiding others who had been in the States at least five years and who met certain criteria to remain so that they could get renewable work permits. Gonzales was one of those. When Donald Trump became president in 2017, however, things changed.
“He had abolished all the executive orders that [President] Obama had put in place,” explains Rochester, “so therefore, because she was illegal, she didn’t have a status of no priority or low priority. She’s illegal, and the law says if you’re illegal, you are subject to deportation.”
Listen to MORE from Veronica Waters’ interview with Rochester below:
The couple went to Gonzalez’s November appointment with Immigration and Customs Enforcement with an airplane ticket in hand, offering to have the mother self-deport, and asking permission to wait until after the holidays. January 9, 2018, the young family traveled to Guadalajara, where Ashton got to meet some relatives for the first time before he and his father came home without Cecilia.
“Hard to talk about it,” says Rochester, choking back tears and falling quiet, “because we had to tell my son that Mommy would be home soon.
And she’s still not here.”
Gonzalez will be eligible to apply for a visa to return in 10 years, he says. The wait is long because of the previous times she had been caught entering the U.S. illegally.
Rochester said he voted for Trump because as a Christian, he decided he could not vote for Hillary Clinton because of her support for keeping Roe v. Wade the law of the land. He believed Trump would make abortion illegal.
“I know God frowns on abortion,” he says. “There’s nothing in the Bible that says anything about immigration.”
Then in July, on one of Ashton’s visits to Mexico, Cecilia saw a protrusion on the boy’s side and took him to a hospital. Tests showed the kindergartner had a Wilms tumor—a cancerous tumor that begins in the kidneys—that was the size of a large cantaloupe.
Ashton had a kidney removed and began a series of cancer treatments at Scottish Rite in Atlanta, which his father says often left the boy shaken and crying.
“He’s terrified when he goes to chemo treatment,” says Rochester. “He’s physically shaking. I do the best I can, but I can only imagine that Mommy’s warm hugs and kisses and just her being there would help.”
Their son, he says, also doesn’t understand why his mom isn’t there. He video chats with her daily.
“Ashton’s asking, ‘Mommy, when are you coming home? You need to go to the airport and tell them you want a plane ticket, so you can come home,’” says Rochester.
The father tells his little boy that “Mommy wants to come home, but our government doesn’t want Mommy here.”
Rochester began a public relations campaign of sorts on social media, launching a GoFundMe page and a Change.org petition, as well as writing letters to the White House; reaching out to Senator Johnny Isakson and then-Congresswoman Karen Handel; and tweeting President Trump, Vice-President Pence, Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, and Kellyanne Conway, among others, urging them to help reunite his family. Rochester wants a humanitarian parole or other assistance to bring Gonzalez back home, so she can be with her family. ICE has denied it because of Gonzalez' previous deportations.
“They didn't even look at the fact that she was trying to get back for my son,” he says. “We're at the mercy of their decision.”
So far, Rochester says, no one has seemed able to him. He received form-letter “Thank you for writing”-type responses from the White House, and much of the attention he has gotten on social media is from people who express confusion about why he voted for a candidate who expressed disdain for illegal immigrants on the campaign trail.
Rochester admits the policy change was disheartening. His wife, he says, is no “bad hombre.”
“When Trump was running, he was obviously tough on the illegals and I understood that. But when he said, ‘the bad people,’ be it the gang members and the drug dealers and the violent criminals--all those people that everyone thinks of as a bad person when you start thinking about that. You hear the word ‘bad,’ you don’t think of someone who came into the country illegally to make a better life for themselves and has never caused a problem in the 18 years that they were here. But he classifies them all as bad now,” says Rochester.
He knows his is not the only family suffering from such a separation, and he hopes for a change in the law that will help all the American citizens who are married to illegal immigrants. Rochester says he and Gonzalez are willing to pay a fine, if need be, but says a decade-long wait is too long for the law-abiding couple and their innocent son.
“We’re not a family of criminals. We’re not just married to give her papers. As a Christian, you’re supposed to marry for love. I don’t think that anybody can fault me for trying. I knew that she was illegal when I married her, but I loved her, and I knew she was a good person, and I figured that we would do our best to try to fix the situation and it just has never come to fruition yet,” says Rochester.
“She’s sorry for her mistake. She’s paying the price more than we ever imagined.”