Friday, July 13, 2007
Longtime Advocate for Immigrants
Now Faces Deportation
New York Times July 11
For Victor Toro, last week seemed like any other week in his life as one of the best-known advocates for immigrants and other dispossessed people in New York City. He met with other activists in Rochester to discuss what they should do about the recent collapse of the immigration bill in Congress.
On Friday, his meetings completed, Mr. Toro boarded an Amtrak train to return to his home in the Bronx. But Mr. Toro is an illegal immigrant. And it was on that train that he was discovered. He was arrested, jailed and then released early Monday morning after posting bond.
He now faces deportation.
Yesterday he was home with his wife and daughter, awaiting what is next in his odyssey. It began in the 1970s when he was a political prisoner in the jails of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile, veered for a time into Europe and Mexico, then into New York City, where he became known for more than two decades of community and political activism.
Belatedly, Mr. Toro now plans to seek political asylum, but where he once feared only Chile, he said he now fears the United States as well.
Mr. Toro, a striking figure who wears his long white hair in a ponytail and has a luxuriant white mustache, foresaw none of this when he boarded the train in Rochester.
Suddenly, United States border patrol agents entered Mr. Toro’s car and went from seat to seat, asking passengers whether they were citizens, residents or visitors. Mr. Toro answered, in Spanish, that he was not an American citizen.
Did he have any identification? the agents asked. Mr. Toro showed them a Chilean passport, which had expired in 2005 and had no entry stamps for the United States. Can you explain the lack of entry stamps? the agents asked.
“I am here illegally,” Mr. Toro said in Spanish, according to his daughter, Rosa Toro, who acted as interpreter during a phone interview.
Mr. Toro was handcuffed, placed in a van with other immigrants who could not provide papers, given an orange jumpsuit, and imprisoned at Cayuga County Jail in Auburn, N.Y.
Ramon Rivera, a spokesman for United States Customs and Border Protection, said such random checks were becoming increasingly routine at train stations, bus stops and airports since the terror attacks of 9/11.
Detainees like Mr. Toro are asked during processing whether they seek political asylum, Agent Rivera said, and there is no record that Mr. Toro sought such asylum last week.
For Mr. Toro, 65, interactions with governments are filled with dread. When he was a left-wing political activist, General Pinochet’s regime tortured him after the coup that toppled Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973, he said.
Both he and Nieves Ayress, now 56, who later became his wife, have said they had electrodes attached to their genitals in Chilean jails.
In 1976, he fled Chile for Sweden, Norway and other European countries, but he did not seek asylum anywhere there, said Carlos Moreno, Mr. Toro’s lawyer. For years, Mr. Toro went from country to country, finding himself at last in Mexico.
In 1984, he illegally crossed the border into the United States at El Paso, settling later in the Bronx, Mr. Moreno said.
Mr. Toro and Ms. Ayress, both political activists, started Vamos a la Peña del Bronx in 1987, a storefront group that provided clothing and food for poor people, help with immigrants’ problems, shelter for battered women and health education for those who were H.I.V. positive.
In 1998, the group won an award and a $50,000 grant from Union Square Awards in Manhattan for community service. “We were looking for groups that were operating on pure passion but who had no economic resources,” said Iris Morales, director of the philanthropy.
During more than two decades in the public eye, Mr. Toro was hiding his immigration status in plain sight, his lawyer said. Mr. Toro was arrested three times in the 1990s for nonviolent offenses: once for a political demonstration, a second time for a noise complaint, and a third for a building permit dispute.
Mr. Toro was never asked about his immigration status after his arrests, Mr. Moreno said. In addition, his home is opposite the 40th Precinct police station.
General Pinochet died last year, his regime replaced by a freely elected government, so why doesn’t Mr. Toro simply return to his homeland?
Rosa Toro said that the Chilean government declared him officially dead, a fact that chills her father.
“In Chile, the dictatorship would declare a person dead,” Ms. Toro said, “so that if you came back and something should happen to you, no one would know because you were already dead, officially.”
Ms. Toro, 27, was born in Havana and is a legal resident. Her mother is an American citizen. Mr. Toro had hesitated seeking asylum, in part, because the recent failed immigration bill seemed to promise amnesty for illegal immigrants like himself, Ms. Toro said. He had sought a new Chilean passport, but both times Mr. Toro was told that he was dead.
“Now, in both places, no one is very concerned about my father,” said Ms. Toro, a schoolteacher. “In the U.S. he could be deported, and in Chile he doesn’t exist.”
Mr. Moreno acknowledges that he faces substantial hurdles when Mr. Toro appears before an immigration court. No court date has been set.
Nonetheless, Mr. Toro has a strong case for political asylum because he has contemporary witnesses and photographs documenting physical abuse in Chile, Mr. Moreno said.
“Yes, he has some explaining to do,” Mr. Moreno said.
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