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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.