A South Bronx community organizer – tortured by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet‘s government in the 1970s – is being deported after living here illegally for 27 years.
“I feel scared to go back,” Victor Toro, 68, said Thursday. “I’m still legally dead there. It’s a difficult situation.”
On March 2, a federal Immigration Court judge denied Toro’s pleas for asylum, saying he should have requested it when he first arrived – and ordered him to return to his homeland.
His lawyer called the ruling a “serious blow” to the white-bearded grandfather, who heads the culture and community group La Pena del Bronx, and a blow to asylum-seekers everywhere. They plan to appeal.
“This ruling is patently unfair and sets aside the weight of the evidence,” said the lawyer, Carlos Moreno.
ICE took Toro to court after he was arrested on an Amtrak train near Buffalo in 2007 for not having immigration papers.
Toro, a longtime advocate for immigrant rights who waded across the Rio Grande in 1984 to enter the U.S., claims he was afraid to turn himself in and request asylum, citing U.S. support for Pinochet’s brutal regime.
A democracy replaced the regime in 1990, but some of the leaders who had Toro tortured remain powerful, his lawyer says. They expelled Toro from Chile in 1977, declaring him dead.
Judge Sarah Burr said in a written ruling that Chile is a changed country and a safe place for Toro.
The Pinochet regime imprisoned Toro because he co-founded the Revolutionary Left Movement, known as the MIR, an anti-Pinochet group briefly labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S.
He was blindfolded for months at a time and had electric shocks applied to his genitals. He twice faced firing squads that shot blanks to scare him.
With President Obama set to visit the capital of Santiago later this month, Toro and Moreno are begging the White House to intervene. They argue the U.S. owes Toro because it tacitly backed Pinochet for years.
“The Obama administration needs to take a stand on this case,” Moreno said.
Although the judge found Toro’s testimony credible, she “didn’t act in the name of justice,” said Toro, who volunteers at South Bronx community gardens.
“My wife, daughter and grandmother are here,” he said. “They are dividing my family.
Burr found Toro not guilty of terrorist activity, but Moreno thinks the terrorism charge swayed her.
“The fear of being soft on terrorism is probably what caused the judge to make this ruling,” he said.
In her decision, Burr called the outcome of Toro’s case “regrettable,” but said immigration rules required Toro to apply for asylum within a year of his arrival or before 1997.
ICE declined to comment.
BY DANIEL BEEKMAN