The thousands of immigrants being held at the country's southern border this month each have their own stories to tell. Many, if not most, are destitute refugees fleeing crime, drugs and poverty in their troubled home countries. Some, without question, are undesirables that Americans can only hope U.S. officials will identify and send away.
Then there is Eduard Rojas Fernandez, a 117-pound professional jockey from Venezuela who believes his refusal to throw races at the mafia's command has made him a target in his home country. Back in Caracas, he believes, a bullet just might have his name on it.
He has an advantage shared by few other applicants for asylum, however: an influential and committed American friend. In his case, it's his girlfriend and business partner, Bakersfield's Karen Gentry Norton, a financial consultant and former delegate to California's Republican state convention.
Norton, an avowed conservative, suddenly finds her support of U.S. immigration policies wavering in the face of widespread institutional dysfunction and her empathy heightened for the plight of the stateless, powerless multitudes among whom Rojas now finds himself.
"I know there are people out there who don't have a lawyer, or a Karen, and I want to be a voice for them," she says.
In this case, she is not pulling for just any ordinary laborer. Rojas is a pro athlete and a winner — a sought-after horseman with a substantial fan base in both Venezuela and the U.S. Or he did, until he fell into a political and administrative black hole only partially of his own making.
As Norton tells it, the life of a professional jockey changed dramatically during the reign of socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an infamous U.S. antagonist. One of the underground economies that took root during Chavez's corrupt years in power was illegal gambling, and race tracks were ground zero. Gamblers would call together the jockeys who were riding the favored horses on a given day and tell them to finish third so that the gamblers' long shots would win and pay off big. Failure to comply could result in bodily harm to the jockey or trainer, or worse. In one case a horse was poisoned.
Rojas refused to comply, Norton said, winning a race he had been ordered to throw. But he realized he needed to leave the country, and the easiest choice for him was Trinidad and Tobago.
In 2015 he was invited to ride in Alberta, Canada. He arrived in March 2016 with $15 in his pocket and took up residence in a small dormitory at the racetrack. It was there, at a racetrack in Edmonton, that Norton first met him.
Rojas found success in Alberta but one day was seriously injured after taking a bad spill. He underwent two surgeries on his crushed pancreas and another on two compound fractures in his arm.
Norton brought him to his appointment for a tourist visa at the U.S. consulate in Calgary the same day he was released from the hospital. He was approved and as soon as he was well enough to travel, he flew to California. He immediately started the application process to obtain the type of visa issued to pro athletes and, after three attempts and $36,000 in legal fees, was approved in July 2018.
He began to ride at Los Alamitos, a track near Long Beach, and was soon recognized by owners and trainers as the talented jockey he'd been in Venezuela and elsewhere. He started a horse breeding business with Norton. He was on the way to his American dream.
The next step was the DS160 interview, a State Department screening ostensibly intended to root out terrorists, drug smugglers and human traffickers. But the rules had recently changed.
The Supreme Court had upheld President Trump's travel ban on seven countries — five Muslim-majority countries, as well as North Korea and, to a limited degree, Venezuela. But surely the government would not regard a professional jockey with a lifelong record of lawfulness and business acumen as a threat.
He was denied.
What followed was an excruciating period of appeals and gambles that took him to Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela (where he was briefly detained by the military), back to Mexico and then, regretfully, across the border into the U.S. — in the trunk of a car. Border Patrol agents arrested him and the coyote driving him.
"He was doing everything right until then," Norton said. "Getting in the trunk of a car was never, ever in the discussion and I don't think that was ever his intent. If I'd known, I would never have gone for that. I believe he just kind of got talked into it. The plan was for him to present himself at the border and go back into the process."
Rojas asked for asylum, citing his concerns over the illegal gambling that dominated his profession in Venezuela. He continues to wait for that hearing, which is supposed to take place within 10 days of custody by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Calls to ICE were not returned Thursday, and efforts to reach Rep. Judy Chu, D-Claremont, whose office has been involved in the case, were not successful.
Rojas' lawyer, Bonnie Smerdon, an immigration attorney based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has not been pleased with ICE's responsiveness.
"If you state that you're afraid, they have to give you a credible fear interview," she said. "They have to ask, have you suffered past persecution? Do you have reason to fear future persecution? Persecution might be based on race, ethnicity, religion or a particular social group. And the particular body type of an athlete — an easily recognizable, internationally known jockey — fits that."
But rather than consider his application, the U.S. Marshal sent him to a detention center in Arizona. No charges were filed: Officials wanted him as a witness against the suspect who had driven him across the border.
Two weeks into his detention Rojas got sick — pneumonia, it turned out. ICE continued to move him from one detention facility to another, and none seemed willing or capable of providing the treatment he needed. Norton tried to arrange that treatment; so did his attorney.
"But ICE has never returned a single phone call," Smerdon said. "The last time I called I asked, 'Is he alive? Because you might be shipping a body around.' The woman said, 'Well, he's not dead or it would say so in the system.'
"ICE has absolutely no oversight. They can ship people all over with no one to answer to."
For reasons not clear to Norton, Rojas is now in South Carolina. Whether he is in better health than the last time she heard from him is not clear. But she is hopeful.
"He is very happy to be where he is," Norton said in a recent Facebook post. "The process is now starting. And he has people there who like him and are taking better care. Thank you Jesus. Not out yet, but I'll take this."
Norton said Smerdon would soon be visiting Rojas in South Carolina in order to try and move the process along. But politics may foul their efforts once again: The government shutdown, expected to last well into 2019, seems likely to delay things further.