ICE Detention Ordeal of a Jockey from Venezuela

Why following rules to legal immigration is no guarantee

Penny Loeb
7 min readJan 18, 2019


Eduard Rojas Fernandez

In Venezuela, horse racing odds are sometimes stacked in favor of organized crime.

The Mafia has been known to poison horses and order jockeys and trainers to let the longshot win. They obey, for fear of harm to them or their family. Antonio Sano, who now trains racehorses in Florida, including $4.1 million winner Gunnevera, was kidnapped twice in Venezuela, one time for 36 days.

Nearly a decade ago, Eduard Rojas Fernandez chose to disobey. He was on a horse he found for owners, a horse with a good shot. He let him win. With his life now in danger, he left to ride in Trinidad.

A graduate of Venezuela’s respected jockey school and veteran of more than 1,000 races in Venezuela, he dreamed of riding in America. But after nearly a decade trying and three years of riding in California, he now sits in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in South Carolina, with a slim chance for asylum.

Rather than a story of illegal immigration, this journey reveals the sometimes nearly impossible immigration entanglements for those following all the rules.

Weighing 117 pounds, with a slight twinkle in dark eyes, riding is Rojas’s life. [He follows the Spanish custom of using his middle name, his father’s, as his last.] Fractious thoroughbreds melt into his gentle hands, a karma that encourages longshot winners. Often first at the track in pre-dawn hours, Rojas can be last to leave. When not with horses, he manages a business that helps support his family in Venezuela.

In 2015, he was invited to ride in Alberta, Canada. After paying for a visa, he arrived with $15. There he met his now-girlfriend Karen Gentry Norton, a financial consultant from Bakersfield, California. A bad spill ended his racing career in Canada. But the day he was released from the hospital, he and Norton went to the U.S. Consulate, where he was approved for a tourist visa.

Once in California, he met trainers and jockey agents, several of whom agreed to sponsor him for a P1 visa for professional athletes. Attorney fees and the application with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services cost $36,000.

Allowed to ride during the application process, Rojas rode in 236 races, won 24, and was second and third 62 times. In July 2018, he and Norton were thrilled when his application was approved to move to the final step, an interview at a U.S. Consulate to ensure he met all conditions and wasn’t a terrorist threat.

Benoit Photo

But the thrill was gone when his visa was denied at the Consulate in Tijuana. The reason given was that he had no ties to his home country, under section 214(b) of the United States Immigration and Nationality Act. His wasn’t the only refusal.

“I observed hopeful happy applicants walk in the building and these same people walked out in tears,” said Norton, who waited for Rojas outside the Consulate. “I began to suspect something wasn’t quite right.”

Next Rojas tried the Consulate in Trinidad. He had sent proof of owning property and a business in Venezuela ahead of the interview. But he said the Consulate officials returned the package unopened, and refused the visa.

Finally, he tried the Consulate in Venezuela, where the military recognized him as a jockey riding in California, detained him at the airport and took some of his property records. The Consulate again refused the visa. The Bureau of Consular Affairs lists reasons for visa denial. A Department of State spokesperson said the department does not comment on individual visa applications.

More than 500,000 residents fled Venezuela last year. Under the socialist governments of the late Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, the country has gone from being one of the richest in South America to one of the poorest. Food and medicine are scarce. A kilo of rice costs half a month’s minimum wages. For many, the only alternative is escape, often difficult.

Because of the political unrest, Venezuela is one of seven countries under President Trump’s travel ban, but unlike the others, only certain government officials are banned. Still Norton believes the ban has impacted Rojas. In 2017, 43 percent of Venezuelan applicants were denied nonimmigrant visas, about 50 percent higher than average, and nearly twice as high as the median of 24 percent for 200 countries.

With visa hopes quashed, Rojas returned to Mexico and decided to present himself at the border and ask for asylum. An acquaintance suggested he travel with a friend driving to the border. Turns out that person was a suspected smuggler, and ordered Rojas into the trunk near the border. The smuggler was arrested after they crossed October 24. Rojas was detained as a potential trial witness.

For nearly three months, Rojas has been one of the roughly 41,000 detainees held every day. He was shuffled through four of ICE’s more than 200 detention centers, and nearly died of pneumonia. At the center in San Luis, Arizona, he was in a big room with 32 mostly Mexican detainees. On December 4, he came down with the flu, and saw a doctor on the 8th. With the flu worsening, he was moved four days later to the Campo Border Patrol Station in Pine Valley, California, a processing center now housing detainees from overcrowded centers.

Fortunately, a Honduran detainee called a supervisor when Rojas had a seizure. Finally, he was treated during a six-day stay at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa, California. ICE is investigating how Rojas got so ill, an official told his attorney. ICE media officials responded they are not available during the government shutdown. In May 2017, Human Rights Watch issued an extensive review of wide-spread lax medical care in detention centers, “Dangerous & Substandard Medical Care in US Immigration Detention.”

After a brief return to Campo, Rojas was moved on Christmas to the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, where former detainees had sued the private prison company for forcing them to clean and cook for $1.50 an hour. A few days later, he was on a plane to Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston, where he spent New Year’s Eve.

Frantic to locate Rojas during these moves, Norton and his attorney Bonnie Smerdon constantly called ICE officials. After he became ill, Norton drove to San Luis and demanded to see him. “I began to wonder why my boyfriend who had followed all the rules was suddenly in a gulag.” She has contacted Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris and Representatives Judy Chu and Zoe Lofgren. None has responded.

Smerdon, whose late husband was a jockey and who has been an exercise rider in the mornings, handles visa, asylum and deportation cases for jockeys and grooms. “There are immigration laws, ways for people to stay. But ICE does not obey those,” she said. “Their job is to kick people out as quick as possible.” She won two of her three deportation cases this year.

Smerdon met with Rojas at the Al Cannon center in early January and prepared him for the interview with a USCIS official who will decide whether he would be harmed in Venezuela. She hurried back to Florida, making it home at 2 a.m. The next morning, she got a call: the interview would be the next day, January 11. She caught a flight back to Charleston that night.

“There were some very powerful moments for Eduard,” she said. “They asked what was the worst threat. He’s only been physically harmed once, but he has been threatened several times. They asked what the worst was. He told them a trainer was shot and killed in front of him for not doing what he was told.”

More than two-thirds of asylum applicants pass the interview. A handful are immediately granted asylum. But the majority end up before a judge. Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data research organization at Syracuse University, found success depends on which of the 62 immigration courts handles the case. Rojas expects to appear at the Atlanta court. While judges there only granted 4 percent of all asylums in 2018, 28 percent of Venezuelans were approved.

Rojas’s ruling could come by January 25. While he awaits the decision, Rojas spends his days translating Spanish speaking detainees for their attorneys and ICE officials.

Smerdon worries about him. He is sick again and hasn’t gotten the medical care she requested. Though he had a bottle of Tylenol, he gave it to a sick Cuban detainee. He’s not getting much sleep because guards wake him up to translate when the daily list of detainees scheduled for credible fear interviews is released about 1 a.m.

“I saw him walk away after the credible fear interview. He doesn’t even walk the same,” she said. “I don’t think he’ll ever be the same person.”

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Penny Loeb

Author, investigative reporter (at Newsday and U.S. News & World Report). Finalist Pulitzer Prize and National Magazine Award.