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As the bureaucracy wheezes, an ailing father waits for his son

Tom Romano literally broke his back for his country. For some reason, that country has not been able to honor that service by reuniting him with his son.

Tom Romano and his son, Robert, used an app to video-call each other. They haven't seen each other in person in four years.Robert Romano

The last time I checked in with 66-year-old Tom Romano, last spring, he had hope.

Robert Romano, the boy he had adopted from an orphanage at age 3, and who was deported to Trinidad in 2019 at the age of 30 because of a legal snafu over that adoption, had gathered the support of four US senators. Tom Romano hoped his son would be back home soon to take care of him.

These days, despite that high-profile support, hope is hard to come by for the Romanos.

The weeks and months have passed, and Tom Romano, a US Air Force veteran who literally broke his back for his country, lies alone in his apartment in Manchester, N.H., hoping that the same federal government that spared no expense to send him to the Vietnam War could spare just a few moments to look over and sign off on some paperwork so his son can return to the United States and take care of him.

An Air Force mechanic, Tom Romano damaged his back badly when he fell off an aircraft he was working on in Thailand during the Vietnam War. The spinal cord he had damaged back then severed four years ago, shortly after Robert was taken into custody to await deportation; he has been confined to his apartment ever since.

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Tom Romano, a Lawrence native, didn’t know his son had any issues with his legal status until Robert was 17 and applied for a driver’s license. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not recognize the adoption, saying it was merely a guardianship. Two years ago, Robert was deported to Trinidad, where his family had given him up for adoption as a young child.

After a column about the Romanos’ plight appeared here in April, their lawyer, Ann Elise McCaffrey, gathered letters of support from senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. The offices of New Hampshire senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan have also tried to get ICE’s ear on the Romanos’ behalf.

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McCaffrey refiled a request for humanitarian parole, so Robert could return to the United States to take care of his dying father. Tom Romano has been given six months to a year to live. When his father dies, Robert would be required to return to Trinidad.

But spring has given way to summer, which has given way to fall, and now winter is upon us and there’s been no decision from ICE.

In those intervening months, Tom’s need for his son to serve as his caretaker has grown exponentially. The pandemic has contributed to a shortage of home health care workers.

“Pops was getting about a quarter of the care he needed,” Robert Romano told me from Trinidad.

“The agency was not sending people on a regular basis,” McCaffrey said. “He was going several days without anyone seeing him.”

After McCaffrey alerted regulators to the haphazard staffing, regulators shut down the agency, leaving Tom Romano with no home health care.

“He’s got a new care worker, from a different agency, but it’s only half of the hours he should be getting,” McCaffrey said.

The solution, of course, is as plain as day. If ICE approves the humanitarian parole request, Robert Romano would become his father’s caregiver, and a veteran who suffered for his country would receive some tangible thanks from the government he served.

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“I can’t think of a more deserving humanitarian case,” McCaffrey said.

Federal officials told McCaffrey the case would be expedited, but she can’t get an answer out of ICE.

Neither could I. Emilio Dabul, a public affairs officer, told me, “ICE cannot comment as the case is ongoing.”

So is the pandemic, which has made Tom Romano’s condition more desperate.

“He doesn’t want me to worry, but I can tell how hard this is on him,” Robert Romano said. “He sleeps a lot with the medication. I try to talk to him when he’s up. He’s very tired. And very lonely.”

That last part is unthinkable, unnecessary, and wrong, and just shouldn’t be.




Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.