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Long IslandInvestigations

She thought his deportation ended their story. It didn't.

María, a Central American immigrant who has applied

María, a Central American immigrant who has applied for asylum, with her son earlier this year.  Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

The family selfie was taken in a happy time that seems very long ago.

Esteban, an immigrant from Central America who crossed the border without papers, is in a red Michael Jordan T-shirt, lying in bed near his companion, María. She is also a Central American immigrant who has applied for asylum after running away from a husband who she said brutalized her and is doing time for violent crimes in her native country.

She’s holding the smartphone camera and resting her head on Esteban’s shoulder, a look of satisfaction on her face.

Her daughter and son are beaming next to Esteban, who had accepted them as his own. With their joint earnings, María and Esteban had rented a house and were paying for a new car. They were putting money aside and they dreamed of opening a beauty and nail salon as a couple.

Then the altered reality of living in the country illegally, under enforcement rules put in place by President Donald Trump’s administration, intruded. Esteban became one of scores of people arrested for immigration violations on Long Island in a single month, as the pace of deportations increased.

Esteban and María are pseudonyms. The couple agreed to tell their story over a period of months — even when they were separated by Esteban’s deportation — on the condition that their identities remain confidential. Some details have been obscured for that reason, but none has been altered.

The Trump administration’s policies on immigration have elicited impassioned support and opposition. Apart from that debate, Esteban and María’s story shows the impact the policies have had on one family that arrived here illegally, in Esteban’s case, and through an asylum request, in Maria’s.

There were an estimated 121,000 people living in Nassau and Suffolk counties without legal status, according to statistical analysis of census data from 2012 to 2016 by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, D.C. 

Many live guardedly to avoid arrest, detention and removal from the country.

Esteban had been ordered deported for jumping bail more than a decade before, soon after he crossed the Mexican border, and missing his ensuing immigration court proceedings. He said that he backed away from making his case because he couldn’t afford a lawyer, viewed the effort as doomed and thought his best chance was to work hard, live cleanly and hope for an eventual legalization program.

Until federal agents came knocking, he had been one of an estimated 9.6 million immigrants nationally who lacked legal status but were not considered targets for removal under immigration enforcement priorities at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, according to figures from the Migration Policy Institute. Earlier, removals of immigrants had peaked at more than 400,000 in 2012 under Obama as his administration supported a comprehensive immigration reform effort in Congress.  

Esteban, in his 30s, said that after being arrested during his border crossing he has never had a run-in with the law, and a Newsday records search turned up no evidence that he had been charged with any crimes. But under an executive order, issued by Trump five days into his presidency, the deportation net grew wider.

“We cannot faithfully execute the immigration laws of the United States if we exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from enforcement,” the order said.

The policy expressly covered those like Esteban who were “subject to a final order of removal” from an immigration judge and had “not complied with their legal obligation to depart the United States.”

Just this week, Trump had vowed to launch a massive effort to remove "millions of illegal aliens" from the country, a push that would have affected families with children. However, Trump said Saturday that he was delaying those sweeps to give lawmakers time to address border issues, though administration officials were also concerned about “the safety and security” of their personnel in such a highly-publicized operation.

In a text message sent after he had been flown back to his hometown, Esteban said that his deportation “destroyed everything that María and I had achieved, a family, a beautiful home that was something so special.”

His sudden absence, and the loss of income that came with it, sent María — then pregnant, unable to meet the rent and with her heat turned off — looking for help from friends, her church, community groups and the government.

“I depended on him in every sense,” said María, speaking in Spanish.

Whatever the hardship, supporters of tougher immigration enforcement argue that people who violate the law should not be here to begin with, that they brought their legal misfortune on themselves and that they should pay the price.

“One, it’s the law. And two, it’s our country. We decide who stays and who goes,” said Barrett Psareas, vice president of the Nassau County Civic Association, a nonprofit group in Cedarhurst that advocates for lower taxation and tighter immigration restrictions.

He said he feels sorry for the children of couples separated by deportation but that government should protect taxpayers facing competition for jobs given to low-wage workers who “violated the sovereignty of my nation.”

"I depended on him in every sense."

María, speaking of Esteban

“No one wants to see a family broken up. I don’t. Who suffers most is the child,” Psareas said. In the case of those who came here illegally, he added, “his parents made bad decisions” and must face the consequences.

Advocates for a path to legal status for immigrants who have grown roots here challenge these arguments, citing the country’s history of immigration, the contributions of the latest arrivals in what is now a virtually full-employment economy and the human cost of uprooting people who have built productive lives here over extended periods.

“What we are seeing in the Trump administration is widespread arrests and removals of people who are no danger to the United States, people who have lived in the United States for very substantial periods of time,” said Patrick Young, downstate advocacy director for the New York Immigration Coalition. “It’s extremely traumatic for the families.”  

Esteban

It is hard to imagine a more modest American dream than the one that propelled Esteban, then a young adult, to leave his impoverished neighborhood more than 10 years ago. It was something other than the abject desperation driving many others.

He thought he could enter the U.S. quickly, stay a short while and earn enough money to buy a few extravagances when he returned home — a refrigerator, a comfortable bed and the computer his family could never afford while he was in school.

“That was simply my dream,” he recalled.

He said he knew he would be violating immigration law in crossing the border but had concluded that a visa was out of the question for poor people without ties to legal residents or citizens in the United States.

So, as Esteban recalls, he spent three months walking, riding public transportation and sleeping where he could to make it through Mexico before joining others wading across the Rio Grande and into Texas.

Once across, the group of migrants walked toward some railroad tracks and furtively climbed into a cargo train that they hoped would carry them deeper into the country.

Border patrol dogs sniffed them out no more than 20 minutes later.

"One, it’s the law. And two, it’s our country. We decide who stays and who goes."

Barrett Psareas, vice president of the Nassau County Civic Association

Charged with illegal entry, Esteban said he spent about a month in federal prison and even longer in immigration detention before he was released on several thousand dollars bail, which his parents borrowed.

Esteban boarded a series of Greyhound buses that 36 hours later brought him to midtown Manhattan, where the unexpected sights and sounds stunned him.

He remembers people bustling, seemingly from all over the world — some who looked and spoke just like him. There were cars everywhere, and lights, and stores, and what to him seemed to be impossibly tall buildings.

Esteban decided to give this exciting new world his best shot.

María

As Trump rose to the presidency on a restrictive immigration platform, María quietly left a little farm town south of the same capital city that Esteban hails from, with her preteen daughter and son, barely school-age, in tow.

She said she had come to realize her husband was involved in a dangerous criminal gang that specialized in extortion. He was increasingly violent to her, especially when binging on drugs, beating her so hard about the head that he left scars and even, she said, “biting me like an animal.”

The breaking point, María remembered, came when he pushed her into a bedroom and strangled her until she passed out. When she woke up, she realized he had raped her, and later, she said, he put a gun to her head and threatened “to finish what he started.”

She thought leaving the country was the only hope for her and her children, who she said had witnessed much of the abuse.

Even though her husband was later locked up for violent crimes that were widely reported in local newspapers, María, in her early 30s, was scared enough of his contacts on the street that she took off with her daughter and son. She said they spent 16 days riding buses north.

That winter she surrendered to agents at a border checkpoint in Texas, told her story and requested asylum for herself and her children, expressing fear for her life.

They were among a growing exodus of tens of thousands of primarily Central American “family units,” many mothers and children, who have presented themselves before authorities every year since 2013 along the Mexican border.

Those asylum seekers are typically released and allowed to stay and wait for their cases to be heard.

Last year, the Trump administration tried to alter this dynamic by implementing a “zero tolerance” policy at the border, separating many children from parents or guardians. Against severe criticism, the administration said it was protecting the children in cases where the family relationship could not be proven.

María was authorized to live with her children and work in the U.S. pending the outcome of her case. She also sought legal status for her children as special immigrant juveniles, abandoned by one parent. They’re attending school and quickly learning English, she said, and earning recognition for being dedicated students.

Asylum petitions were decided at a record pace in 2018, with more than 42,000 cases heard. It was the sixth consecutive year in which denial rates rose, from 42 percent in 2012 to 65 percent in 2018, according to figures compiled by the nonpartisan Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse in Syracuse. Most cases took more than a year to be decided, court records show.

A new start

Awaiting her case’s outcome, María didn’t think she could trust another man and was resigned to raising her children on her own when, several months after her arrival, she met Esteban at a mutual friend’s home in Queens. They struck up a conversation and she felt at ease.

All through her troubles, María had found comfort in prayer. She said she was impressed to see that Esteban shared her values.

“I got to know him,” María said. “He wasn’t a street guy. He is a man who likes to work.”

“My first week I spent it with shovel in hand. My hands were full of blisters.”

Esteban

By the time they met, Esteban had been undergoing his own transformation, from a young man seeking material things to an older one looking to build a family and a future.

He knew refrigeration repair but could not find that kind of employment without a license. Instead, he took on jobs typical for new immigrants. “My first week I spent it with shovel in hand,” planting trees in the Hamptons, he recalled. “My hands were full of blisters.”

He later was hired by a construction crew and followed it to Washington, D.C., where he said he learned aspects of the trade and started accumulating tools. He returned to Long Island with those skills and worked at various construction sites while learning hairstyling on the side.

Esteban eventually started a home construction and repair business with a cousin, and he said they were finding plenty of customers through the warm months, repairing and replacing siding,  hanging drywall and installing decks in the Hamptons.

He felt that he was ready to start a family when he met María, with growing confidence in his new life.

As the illegal-entry charge and the abandoned court case receded in his mind, Esteban reasoned that if he stayed out of trouble, he would be OK. He focused on working. He attended a Hispanic evangelical church in the East End. And he did not get involved in much more.

“I was always very careful, didn’t hang out in dance clubs or with bad company or anything like that,” he said.

His thoughts were increasingly turning to María, and to the life they could build together.

“She had been through a lot,” he said.

Leading a normal life

María and Esteban saw more of each other. They moved into a rented house, combined their earnings and were making plans for the long term.

María said it moved her to see Esteban treating her daughter, 13, and son, 7, as if they were his children — or, as she put it, “blood from his blood.”

With his weekly earnings of $900 from construction jobs and her $300 from work at a nail salon, they were able to easily afford their $1,000 rent and the payments on his new SUV.

Esteban said that, after several years residing without documentation in the United States, he obtained a taxpayer identification number from the Internal Revenue Service and had been using it to pay income taxes regularly for about a decade.

Aside from viewing it as the right thing to do, he said, he wanted to position himself as a candidate for legal status should Congress pass the sort of reform legislation debated during both the Bush and Obama administrations.

He and María were saving for the hair and nail salon they hoped to open when María became pregnant.

Their child would be born an American citizen.

"The fact remains that when individuals choose to live in the United States illegally, they are breaking the laws of this nation."

Rachael Yong Yow, spokeswoman for the ICE New York Field Office

Another photo from this period shows María and Esteban in the kitchen of their new apartment on Long Island, dressed in matching black clothes as if ready to go out. She lovingly leans her face on his, her flowing brown hair falling to her side. He’s clean-shaven, slick hair recently combed back, and he can barely contain a smile.

“We were living a normal life,” María said, wistfully.

The past returns

Agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement routinely pursue immigrants who lack legal status and have been ordered deported by an immigration judge, no matter how long ago, said Rachael Yong Yow, spokeswoman for the ICE New York Field Office.

“If a person has a final order of removal, it is the responsibility of this agency to enforce the immigration laws as set by Congress,” Yong Yow said. “The fact remains that when individuals choose to live in the United States illegally, they are breaking the laws of this nation.”

That day came for Esteban on a crisp, sunny morning.

The ICE agents, wearing vests emblazoned with the word “POLICE,” arrived when the couple were heading out to buy groceries. They were with María’s son, who she said had started referring to Esteban as his papá.

At least three agents encircled Esteban outside as the child clung to him, Esteban recalled. María’s daughter had already left for school.

María became shaky and asked the agents what they wanted. She is still learning English, but she understood they said they just wanted to talk to him.

Esteban calmed her and tried to converse with the agents in the little English he knew. He said they told him they were going to arrest him on the deportation order, issued years before, and that they would send him back to his country.

Speaking of Maria, he said, “I just stared at my girl and she started crying.”

“It was very hard. I hugged the boy and I held him for a long time.”

Soon, he was on a plane headed south.  

Falling apart

Months later, María’s and Esteban’s son was born on Long Island.

The three-month-old cooed and smiled earlier this year as María used baby talk in Spanish to tell him that he was a good boy who liked to sleep and was very content.

She turned sad, though, when reflecting on their situation.

On the weekend following Thanksgiving, María had to make do in the family’s house, then cold and without electricity because neither she nor the person who had sublet to her could pay the utilities.

She moved with the kids to a room rented by Esteban’s relatives, but that had been temporary and uncomfortable.

By early this year, her kids in tow, she was renting a single bedroom in a rundown house for more than she and Esteban had paid for the house they had together. She was sharing common areas with an immigrant couple who rented another room. She used funds donated by members of her church to help cover moving costs, but she was worried about the next month’s rent. Her new landlord was not providing receipts or a lease, she said.

“When you are separated from the people you love, it’s not possible to go on like nothing has happened.”

Esteban

Time was running out.

She couldn’t return to work without anyone to care for her baby and the household income had basically dropped to zero. Eight months after Esteban was sent back, María was at the end of her rope.

“There are times when all I want to do is sleep to be able to endure what I feel inside,” María said at the time. “Sometimes I want to give up on everything and return to my country, you understand? But, at the same time, I start thinking, am I going to throw away my children’s dreams? Their future is here.”

The legal route back to the U.S. was closed to Esteban. Under immigration law, he was banned from re-entry for at least 10 years. He could be banned for 20 years — or even permanently — if caught illegally in the country again.

In interviews from Central America, Esteban said that he could not wait long years to be with his family. He was doing his best to save for his passage north, the illegal way, wall or no wall.

“When you are separated from the people you love, it’s not possible to go on like nothing has happened,” Esteban wrote in a text message. “You try to go knocking on doors, but those doors don’t open and that’s why you are left to search for your own solution. It’s not the right way, but you are left with no other option.”

He calculated that he needed about $6,000 to make it across the border.

María didn’t think his plans were realistic. The jobs he had making minor house repairs or fixing broken air conditioners and refrigerators were paying him the equivalent of $3 to $5 a day.

As the months and tensions wore on, their messages on WhatsApp, their primary mode of communication, had frayed. They began fighting more and more. She had even posted in a moment of despair to friends on a social media account that Esteban should forget about her.

María said in late January that she had stopped responding to his messages. Nearly destitute and with three children to provide for, she did not want to talk about a love that could not be sustained.

“Happiness is not for me,” she said bleakly.

In early February she stopped responding to questions from this reporter about the family’s situation. Before she went silent, María said she was planning to get on a Greyhound by winter’s end and move her family to another state.

She had come to terms with Esteban’s deportation as “the end of our story.”

Esteban had other plans.

The 'odyssey'

As the smuggler’s van wound its way through mountainous terrain in northern Mexico, Esteban later recalled, his stomach knotted with apprehension.

He knew the U.S. border could not be far away, and crossing it was critical in his desperate journey to reunite with his family.

 Back in his small Central American home, he was well aware of the president’s calls for billions of dollars for construction of an impregnable wall between Mexico and U.S. soil. He knew of the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the border, and of the order to deploy federal troops there to keep migrants out.

He feared it would be nearly impossible to return, but Esteban said his heart told him to get back to the ones he loved.

An evangelical Christian, Esteban said he did not want to break the law but that he couldn’t find another path to reunite with his family. With his deportation, he was effectively barred from returning to the country, even temporarily.

“When you are not given an option,” he said, “you have to ask God for direction and seek another way.”

 He had scraped together $200 to cover bare necessities on the road and, with two friends who did the same, decamped for what he calls his “odyssey” — one that, as the smuggler’s van rolled toward the border, had already involved a month of trekking by rail, highway and foot up dusty roads and through farmland and forest.

His is the story of one man’s arduous passage to reunite with his family. It shows how difficult it is for even the most forceful anti-immigrant offensives to restrain the flow of immigration, how porous the borders remain, and how extreme the ordeals are for people desperate to build lives here.

Long before reaching the U.S., Esteban had to get through the border between Guatemala and Mexico, which the Trump administration seeks to close off through a new agreement that spares Mexico a steep increase in tariffs.

He recalled that he and his friends skirted the border with the clear skies offering no cover, as they looked for and eventually found an opening. Soon after, they were spotted by Mexican migration officers who chased them into the woods, where he hid mostly in the dark for about 12 hours, until the federales left.

He said many hours later he hopped hazardously atop the northbound cargo train known by migrants as La Bestia, hanging on tight above a freight car filled with grains as it passed over bridges and through towns, swampy areas, grazing lands, open plains and lush forests.

He remembers the climatic changes in what seemed to be an endless ride — the sky darkening, the rain pouring, the sun coming out again, his clothes drying on his body, and night falling once more with the clack-clack of the tracks in the background. After a full day surfing the train, Esteban said, he fell asleep and woke up disoriented, many hours later, in a cargo depot, where the freight cars had been unhitched, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

He and the others walked half a day, stayed at a migrants’ camp and rode a bus to Mexico City for more than seven hours. They were questioned and let go by a migration officer, and eventually journeyed another 12 hours north to the resort town of Mazatlán, where he worked construction for several weeks, earning some pesos for his trip to the border.

By that point, María had given up all hope of seeing him again. She had added up his daily earnings and the cost and risk of sneaking back in and concluded that she wouldn’t be able “to continue with this situation.” She was depressed about moving on, but, nearly destitute, she had to think about the future of the children, she said. “My heart doesn’t want to part from him, but what I feel doesn’t count,” she said then.

When he called from Mazatlán, though, she was overcome with emotion, she later related: He was closer than she ever imagined and determined to keep going.

“I was really expecting a giant wall. When I looked in that direction there were three wires on sticks and that was it.”

Esteban

“I told her I was ready and that whatever will be will be,” he said.

He asked her help in borrowing the payment of $5,000 to a coyote who could deliver him across the border to contacts on the other side. All he could offer, Esteban recalled, was that he would pay the money back once he completed his perilous journey.

“I supported him all the way,” María said later.

After a couple more weeks, through means he did not describe, the smugglers were paid. Soon after, the van reached a segment of the Mexican border abutting Arizona.

The long walk

Esteban said he expected a militarized zone, nearly impossible to trespass, after Trump vowed last fall to stop an invasion by “a lot of bad people.” The group of migrants spilled out of the van and then stood there at the edges of the two countries, staring out in the predawn hours at something other than Esteban’s anticipated law enforcement presence — a wide-open arid landscape, with no hulking barriers in sight.

He wondered if they were dropped off in the right place.

“I was really expecting a giant wall,” he related. “When I looked in that direction there were three wires on sticks and that was it.”

He walked in through a gap in the fence.

Esteban said he entered a barren no-man’s land with a tired, mostly male group. They were surrounded by not much more than cacti that looked like thorny fingers outstretched to the heavens.

In a brief conversation before he made the crossing, Esteban’s Mexican smuggler gave him a single instruction, he later recounted:

“See that mountain over there in the distance?” said the smuggler, pointing toward the desert.

“Yes,” Esteban said he replied.

“It is like three, four hours away. Understand?”

“Yes, why?”

“Well, that’s the mountain I want you to go to... Someone will pick you up there.”

Esteban took his provisions — powdered milk, some canned food and crackers — and started walking.

“I remember feeling happy. I would tell myself, ‘this is the path that God has for me,’” he said recently.

Esteban said he strode ahead of most of the others and was cutting across rocks, sandy soil and thorny bushes that cast little shade.

The sun rose and reached its zenith and started falling again, and he was still walking. The mountain was farther away than the smuggler had told him, but what else was he going to do?

He kept going.

Test of resolve

After hours trudging north through the desert, Esteban recalled, he finally made it to the mountain the coyote had directed him to. He was to wait there for another smuggler, but there was no indication of when or how that would happen. Other migrants lingered nearby, disoriented and out of water.

The thought of returning to his family sustained Esteban.

“I was only asking God to give me the opportunity to come and see my son,” Esteban said. “That was all I was saying to God, that if it was in His plans, that I could see my son.”

He ran into two other men who had arrived by late afternoon and the group moved to the foot of a ridge. Esteban recalled taking sparing sips of water and small bites from his food to make it last.

As night arrives in the Sonoran Desert during the spring season, the temperature can fall from the high 80s to the 40s. For immigrants traveling lightly and eating little, the nighttime drop can be brutal.

Esteban had heard of immigrants who went too early in the spring almost freezing and having to hug through the night to share body heat. Those who wait too late could end up dehydrated and die from temperatures over 100 degrees.

Within hours that night, Esteban said, he and the two other men were shivering. He heard the chatter of his teeth. The three found a spot behind some rocks and lay down, their bodies touching to share the warmth.

He doesn’t remember when he fell asleep, but he said he woke up hours later to the eerie sensation of being watched. That could have been anything — the Border Patrol, bandits or the quirks of his worn-out mind.

Esteban said he turned around slowly, his eyes adjusting to the pitch darkness.

He made out, not too far from his head, what looked like two beads reflecting dots of light; then, the quick flicking of a tongue.

He recalled bolting upright and screaming for the others to move. They scrambled away from one more desert hazard.

Over two nights and three days, other migrants trickled in as he ran out of supplies, save a last bit of water. 

A guide finally appeared and waited until darkness to lead them toward the other side of the mountain, the starting point for another grueling walk that he told them would take six days through scrub and prickly flora until they made it out of the desert.

In the semidarkness, Esteban remembers all too well, he slipped going down a cliff, jammed his left foot in a hole and felt a sharp slash of pain in his knee. Now limping, he became the one falling behind.

Esteban said he realized that he could no longer keep up and approached their guide. The smuggler said he could send him with those getting “the special trip”— a quicker car ride out from the desert to the East Coast — if he agreed to pay $2,500 more. That would bring his total smuggling debt to $7,500. He calculated he could pay it back — if he made it safely — through construction work that had been paying him more than $100 a day.

Numbed by the pain in his leg, Esteban looked down at his torn shoes and decided it was worth it, relying again on María and relatives to borrow the money.

He was taken with a few others to the side of a desert road to wait for a car.

As the hours wore on, he sat on the ground near a strip of shade from a cactus. He said he eased against its spines "as if it had been a mattress” and savored the last drop of water from his jug. He thought of his promise of returning to María, but his resolve was weakening.

“I would say, ‘God, help me. I can’t take it anymore.’”

As he waited, the desolate landscape would fade as his mind drifted.

Esteban recalled picturing himself teaching his little son fútbol, showing him how to chase and kick a ball — and he felt joy at imagining the child running on the lush grass of the American suburbs.

He’d tell himself: “I will support him. I will go with him wherever he needs to go. Wherever, I would take him, so he can play.”

Land of the living

He told of how time stretched into hours as he languished beneath the open sky. Other migrants lingered nearby.

The first pickup arrived hours later. Esteban said confusion reigned because their connection was a Native American man who didn’t know Spanish.

He loaded 10 people into the car, however they could fit, and took off, leaving a trail of yellow dust, as well as Esteban, behind.

The next cars would not arrive for the remaining migrants until the following day. Esteban got into one that dropped its cargo at another smuggler checkpoint. No one came to pick them up that day, or the following night, or the following day.

“We were abandoned for three days in the desert,” he said. “We had run out of food; we had no water and we were in despair.”

They could hear the hum of what they thought were border patrol vehicles and the droning thump of helicopters hovering nearby, but they had nowhere to hide and no energy to run.

Esteban said that sometime after all had quieted, a Spanish-speaking woman drove up and helped him and others to their feet — they were too weak to get up on their own and walk to her car.

Someone asked what had happened to those who went with the Native American man. She told them they had been spotted by a helicopter and were being shipped back to Guatemala.

Later in their journey, he said, the driver lost her way and became disoriented in a landscape she no longer recognized. Esteban remembers her stopping at a dusty intersection and honking her horn again and again in panic. The migrants — afraid the noise would attract the wrong kind of attention — calmed her and convinced her to drive in some northerly direction.

The horizon gradually shifted before them and they made out squat-looking buildings framed by mountains that turned out to be near Phoenix. They had traveled about 150 miles north of the border. Esteban said he felt as if he was emerging from a kind of underworld to the land of the living.

By his account, he had spent 11 days in the desert.

Esteban’s extra smuggling fee won him a ride in a beat-up six-passenger van headed east across the country.

“Imagine that. I couldn’t see the little belly grow; I wasn’t there when he was born. I had missed way too much.”

Esteban

Every seat was taken, and Esteban and three others had to sit on the hard floor between the legs of other passengers, crouching down so their heads could not be seen by highway patrol cops.

Their driver told them he, too, was in the country illegally and had been deported and had returned to the United States maybe five times.

He was driving recklessly, 80 to 90 mph, on a string of interstate highways. Their goal: to cover 2,000 miles in two or three uncomfortable days.

Esteban told of sensing certain disaster. He couldn’t imagine the worn van with Arizona plates not attracting highway police. He asked the driver to slow down, a suggestion the man dismissed with a wave of the hand. He told Esteban that he knew where patrol cars were hiding and how to avoid them.

“Three times we passed by police cruisers with their lights on because they were occupied with another person, and I would just thank God” that it wasn’t them, he said.

He spent much of the trip in silent prayer.

When they got to Baltimore — with few stops in between — Esteban bailed out. He telephoned and asked his family to send someone to pick him up.

The embrace

His heart was bursting when the vehicle pulled up to a suburban house. He knew who would be waiting inside.

He remembers the door swinging open and the older children running toward him. It was a sensory assault. They were hugging him and smiling and climbing onto his tired body.

He saw María in the background and he walked up to her.

“She came and hugged me,” Esteban said, “and we were there for like two, three, four minutes, just in an embrace, but we had so much emotion that we couldn’t say anything, because there’s nothing to be said. It’s difficult to believe that it’s even happening.”

Then he asked for his son. She brought the boy to his arms and Esteban gazed into his eyes for the first time, six months after his birth.

“When she brought me the child, well, I felt like crying,” he recalled. “Imagine that. I couldn’t see the little belly grow; I wasn’t there when he was born. I had missed way too much.”

Esteban arrived on a Wednesday.

He rested for a day.

The day after that he was laying ceramic tiles at a private home.

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