Roma Migrants Flee to California as Europe Turns More Hostile

  • Violence as migrants pour in drives them across Atlantic
  • U.S. border agents receive them as they arrive from Tijuana

When Viorel Romanescu last year fled his Romanian village, he didn’t follow the well-trod path to Western Europe like his fellow Roma. Instead, he sold his pig and horse, and bought a plane ticket to Mexico.

He walked across the border from Tijuana, surrendered to U.S. border agents and applied for asylum.

Viorel Romanescu

Photographer: Troy Harvey/Bloomberg

“I decided to leave because I had problems surviving,” Romanescu, 52, said through an interpreter at a church in Riverside, California, pointing to injuries on his scalp and upper lip that he said were inflicted by police. “We could not bear the way we were looked down on.”

This year, almost 1,800 Romanians have been apprehended at the southern U.S. border, up from fewer than 400 in all of last year and just a few dozen in 2008, according to government statistics. They are propelled by an anti-immigrant wave sweeping Europe and pushing the Roma across the Atlantic Ocean.

The traditionally itinerant group, persecuted for centuries, is facing less-tolerant governments as more than 1 million migrants and refugees from Syria and other countries overwhelm the region. A resurgence of neo-Nazism from Romania to Italy has seen their camps demolished, businesses firebombed, neighborhoods walled off and children beaten.

“People are getting desperate enough and trying to claim asylum here,” said Ethel Brooks, chairwoman of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre and associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Comparatively Welcoming

The Roma see opportunity in the U.S., despite its own rising populism and calls for stricter immigration laws. Border Patrol agents say they show up in groups that sometimes number more than 20, and most arrived with the help of smugglers.

Roma church service

Photographer: Troy Harvey/Bloomberg

“Every one of them claims to be Roma,” said Daniel Parks, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent in the San Diego region. “They claim they are part of that class that is persecuted by the government of Romania.”

The Roma -- who consider “gypsy” a pejorative -- are an ethnic minority that came from India to Europe more than 1,000 years ago and have endured enslavement, evictions, discrimination and the Holocaust. Of the more than 10 million across Europe, most have settled in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, where they tend to live on the fringes of society, often eking out a life of begging and odd jobs.

“There’s a lot of prejudice against Roma in almost every country in Europe,” said Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, assistant director of the international program at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. “The stereotypes of them panhandling and engaging in petty thievery just stir up these prejudices.”

Since Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, Roma moving west to access labor markets have been met with mounting resistance. In Sweden, politicians are debating whether to ban begging, a tactic critics say targets Roma. In France, police have demolished Roma camps outside Paris. The Canadian government passed a law in 2012 cracking down on “bogus” asylum claimants after thousands of Hungarian Roma sought refuge there.

California Beachhead

Now, the Roma are taking their chances in the U.S. Many are ending up in suburban Los Angeles. Some find housing in common apartments, while others simply pitch tents in a public park until they can secure a roof over their heads. They sometimes find work as nighttime janitors or in restaurants, while others resort to begging on the street or receiving assistance from one of two Roma churches in the area.

St Mary’s Romanian Orthodox Church in Anaheim, California.

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

On a recent night, the walls of the Riverside-based Good Samaritan Romanian Church rang as congregants belted “My Desire Is Jesus” in Romanian, accompanied by an electric violin and keyboard. The low-slung facade next to a drive-through taco shop was packed with about 100 men and women, including more than a dozen newly arrived Romanians.

Romanescu, the man who arrived via Mexico last year, stood among pews in a crisp blue dress shirt and pressed slacks that left no trace of his 6,600-mile journey from his village of Cornetu. He recalled how he made a point to shave off his mustache upon arriving in the U.S. to mark his new beginnings. He’d rather forget the physical abuse and subtle but constant reminders of his second-class status -- having to wait longer for a doctor’s appointment, overcoming stereotypes that he’s a thief.

Pastor Bobby Moise

Photographer: Troy Harvey/Bloomberg

The pastor at Good Samaritan, Bobby Moise , a business owner who fled the Nicolae Ceaușescu dictatorship in 1987, eagerly awaits arrivals like Romanescu, who have doubled his Pentecostal flock to more than 200 families since the church opened in 2010. He takes pride in helping his fellow Roma find housing and God at the same time, while also reminding them of upcoming immigration-court appearances.

“They’re putting their lives at risk coming across oceans and literally going through cartels and criminal gangs in Mexico just to be able to arrive here,” Moise said.

Moises travels back to the Romanian countryside as a missionary and nurtures ties with religious leaders there. Capitanu Vasily, the leader of one of the world’s largest Roma churches, was at Good Samaritan recently and said several of his congregants have come to the U.S. Moises said many land in his church, which is decorated with a mural of a white dove under a shining star.

“For us, the Romani people, America is a land of milk and honey, a land where we can become humans again, not outcasts,” Vasily said.

That belief has spread through Romania. Valeriu Nicolae, the special representative of Roma issues at the Council of Europe, said he notified the U.S. Embassy in Romania five years ago that there would be a tide of Roma headed to America because of worsening conditions. Smugglers were telling people they could guide them across the Atlantic for a hefty fee of up to $25,000 per person, money often secured from loan sharks, he said.

“These networks formed years ago,” said Nicolae. “At this moment, there is a critical mass which makes this a lot more attractive than it used to be. There’s enough people that can host you, and you know where you are going to go.”

Danna Van Brandt, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department of State, had no immediate comment on whether the Roma are eligible for asylum or receiving it.

Luiza Miller, a Romanian immigration attorney in Los Angeles, said her caseload of Roma asylum seekers has grown so large in recent years that they now represent a third of her clientele.

“They figured out that it’s fairly easy to get in and that it’s not that harsh,” said Miller. “If they get apprehended by authorities they get out on bond or out on parole. It’s not life-threatening.”

Even so, it’s not even a sure bet that the Romanians who make it all this way will ultimately be allowed to stay. There were 1,265 Romanians in deportation proceedings for immigration violations as of August, up from fewer than 500 in all of last year, according to data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonprofit that distributes government data obtained through freedom-of-information requests.

Since Romanescu arrived in the U.S., he’s been living with family in Riverside while he waits for an immigration judge to determine whether he’ll qualify for asylum, a process that can take years. He doesn’t mind the wait.

“I’m not going back to Romania,” he said. “I like it here. A burden was taken from my shoulder.”

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