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GONZALEZ: Hey everybody, I’m Ana.

NUNES: I’m Alex. And this is Mosaic.

GONZALEZ: So, Alex. You want to start this episode with a quick story.

NUNES: Yes. This is a story my dad told me recently that I’d never heard before.

GONZALEZ: OK. Let’s hear it.

NUNES: So, apparently, before my grandfather came to the U.S. from Portugal, he had actually submitted papers to immigrate to three different countries: South Africa, Brazil, and the United States. And he said: whichever one accepts me first, that’s the one I’m going to. And the first country that said yes was the USA.

GONZALEZ: And here you are today.

NUNES: Yup. Aren’t you glad?

GONZALEZ: Yes. So what’s the point? Why are you telling this story?

NUNES: The point is life is random. And immigration can be super random. People wind up in places by chance for reasons they could never have expected.

GONZALEZ : In this episode, we meet Estela. 

NUNES: She came to the U.S. from Mexico, almost by accident.

GONZALEZ: But, as you’ll hear, she found herself in a situation she couldn’t have imagined: married, with kids, and facing deportation.

ESTELA: I feel like a bird in a cage. Like. OK. I’m beautiful. I could fly, but they don’t let me! 

NUNES: [Sound of ocean waves.] Westerly is Rhode Island’s southern most town. And one thing you notice when you get here is there’s a lot of water. 

GONZALEZ: There’s the Pawcatuck River that separates Rhode Island from Connecticut. And then there’s this: the big old Atlantic Ocean.

NUNES: Outside of Rhode Island, Westerly is probably known best for its beaches and five star hotel suites. But there’s more to it than that. I know, because I live here. The town also has a small but significant immigrant population. 

GONZALEZ: People come here from all over--Jamaica, Eastern Europe, China, Central America--to work in construction, at hotels and nearby casinos, or in restaurant kitchens. Others have degrees and professional jobs. 

NUNES: We spent time with one immigrant living in Westerly: Estela. She lives about a two minute walk from my house, and she just happens to have a very memorable laugh [Sound of laugh]. 

NUNES: Halloween is months away, but Estela and her son, Jorge, are already hard at work sewing together his costume.

ESTELA: Jorge’s building a costume for next Halloween.

NUNES: It’s got light up eyes, gold teeth, a jester’s hat, and horns. Pretty elaborate.

ESTELA: When you put it on, you can see through these little holes right here.

NUNES: Oh, OK. So you got little triangle holes in it. How’d you learn how to sew?

JORGE: From my mom, like two days ago.

GONZALEZ: Estela also has a daughter, Sofia, and a husband, Diego. He’s a house painter, and he’s originally from Guatemala. She works at a hospital and cleans houses on the side. 

NUNES: And Estela says she never imagined a life like this back when she was living in Vera Cruz, Mexico, 15 years ago. 

GONZALEZ: Not at all. 

NUNES: She’d just graduated college with a degree in international business, and her goal was to run her own company.

GONZALEZ: And maybe she’d be doing that today if it hadn’t been for a trip she and some friends took for fun to Canada when she was 21 years old.

ESTELA: And I love like the tour. It was from Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.

NUNES: That tour was on her mind a few years later. Estela and her friends had just graduated college, and they were looking for work. One idea came up: “Why not try Canada?”

GONZALEZ: And Estela thought that sounded pretty good. So, in February 2005, they all flew to Montreal and started looking for jobs.

ESTELA: And was frozen. Really cold. And no work, any kind of job. We just work one day, cleaning a movie theater. And we just work one night, and they never pay us. And finally we decide to look better position here in United States. 

GONZALEZ: Estela is a no regrets kind of lady, but an immigration lawyer would probably tell you her next move was...inadvisable.

NUNES: Yeah. I think so. So after a month in Montreal, Estela and her friends decide to go to the U.S. They walk five or six hours through the woods, in the middle of the night to cross over into the United States at the Vermont border.

GONZALEZ: It’s late March, early April, and there’s still snow and ice on the ground. Estela’s bundled up in this big winter jacket.

ESTELA: Was really cold and icy. Like in the night time you didn’t see where you were stepping. And sometime you get the cold, icy water to your knee, because you can’t see. Just the moon was the only light we have.

NUNES: She and her friends make it into Vermont early in the morning. They were all trespassing on private property, so Estela assumes someone called the police, and that’s why they got picked up by the authorities.

GONZALEZ: Estela can’t remember if it was immigration or the Vermont State Police. But either way, they seized her passport, and they gave her documents that said she could stay in the U.S. for up to six months.

NUNES: If she wanted to stay longer, she’d have to file paperwork and do it the official way. Otherwise she’d be here illegally.

NUNES: When you crossed into Vermont that morning, what were thinking as you came into the U.S.?

ESTELA: I don’t know. I was young, like 25, 26 years old. I was just not thinking.

NUNES: I’m gonna try the maple syrup?

ESTELA: Yeah. You know. Like, ‘It’s OK.’ They will...If they ask me what I’m doing...Also I told them I’m going to visit my aunt. And they ask me if I was thinking to stay, and I said, no. Maybe I could go to Disney, do something fun here, and come back, because my idea wasn’t to stay here.

GONZALEZ: Estela never made it to Magic Kingdom.

NUNES: No Mickey. No Splash Mountain. Instead she went down to New York City and stayed with some friends there. 

GONZALEZ: Right. And pretty soon after that she was talking to her mom back in Mexico, and she told Estela: “If you want to stay in the U.S., go to Westerly, Rhode Island.” There was a family friend there, and he could help her settle in and do everything she needed to do to stay in the country legally.

ESTELA: And my mom told me, “Well, we know him. We know that you are going to be in good hands. It’s a person who we know you’re going to be good.”

NUNES: So Estela gets to Westerly. But she finds out immediately that this guy already has other friends living with him. The house is full, so she’s got to find somewhere else to stay. 

GONZALEZ: But this guy does have a friend at work who says Estela can crash in his apartment, in the living room, if she wants. 

NUNES: And his name is Diego.

GONZALEZ: Her future husband?


ESTELA: And that’s why I meet him.

NUNES: And you guys started dating at some point?

ESTELA: Mmmm. What I could tell you? [Says Spanish saying then laughs.] From the sky you receive lemons, and you need to learn how to make lemonade.

NUNES: So how soon after you moved to Westerly was Jorge born?

ESTELA: Wow. I arrive here in April.

NUNES: Of 2005?

ESTELA: Yes. And Jorge born in April of 2006. Make your numbers.

NUNES: Pretty quick.

ESTELA: Yes. Yes. Uh huh. Hmm. 

GONZALEZ: So this pretty much changes everything for Estela. Moving back to Mexico whenever she wants isn’t an easy option anymore. 

NUNES: Definitely. She has a really big reason to stay in the U.S. now. And this isn’t an easy transition. Diego and Estela don’t know each other really well, and they’re not on the same page about what they want out of life in the U.S. 

GONZALEZ: Estela says she grew up with more in a big city in Mexico than Diego had in his small village in Guatemala. She wanted to work towards a career and a comfortable life; he was OK just getting by. And Estela says she was having some other issues, too.

ESTELA: Diego was in a different way to be. Like he wants to be like the macho. And I consider myself really responsible, like I try to pay bills on time. And he wasn’t like that. He was like, “No. No. Wait.” And I was like, “Why you want to warm up the money?” And because of that we fight a lot. 

NUNES: That wasn’t the only thing stressing Estela out. Remember: back in 2005 she was given six months to stay in the U.S. She’s way past that deadline now. And by 2011, she and Diego have a second child, Sofia.

GONZALEZ: Because Estela isn’t in the country legally. She could be kicked out at any moment. 

NUNES: She also can’t get a social security number. 

GONZALEZ: And because of that, she’s stuck doing under the table work, off the books.

NUNES: Right. And that is really frustrating for Estela, because she’s taking all these different classes to get credentials so she can start a career in the U.S.

ESTELA: Like I finish my GED. I finish a teacher assistant program. I have my certification to be a bartender. I did another certification for food server. So many things, and I didn’t have the social security to work on it. Like how I can work if I don’t have social? I feel like a bird in a cage. Like. OK. I’m beautiful. I could fly, but they don’t let me!

GONZALEZ: So one day, things boil over. 

NUNES: The whole family is driving up I-95 to Providence when Estela suddenly says to Diego: “Get off the highway.” 

ESTELA: I told him, “Get out from here” at like Exit 2. And he said, “What happened?” And I told him, “I don’t feel good.” And I just opened the door and get down, and I start walking, walking and crying, and I said, “I don’t want this life. I don’t really want this life. I feel so bad. I can’t grow. And I’m not myself. I don’t know. I don’t like it!’ I walk a mile and finally my kids convince me to get in the car, and he bring me back home. But I was crying and crying and crying, and I said, “Everything we have here is not enough. Like I don’t feel free, because I can’t do anything. I continue studying. I continue preparing myself, but for what?”

GONZALEZ: What Estela’s talking about is a pretty universal feeling.

NUNES: Yeah. Like a lot of people don’t always go through life with a plan. We go from one thing to another and see what happens.

GONZALEZ: And sometimes things snowball and build until we’re in a situation that’s like: How’d this happen! 

NUNES: Right, and in Estela’s case, the fact that she’s an immigrant, and she faces all these legal problems, makes it that much harder.

GONZALEZ: So she decides she’s going to try to do something about that.

ESTELA: I wish you could videotape things. How it works. Sofia!

NUNES: It’s an average weeknight at Estela’s. The TV's on, she’s cooking dinner, grilled cheese for the kids, canned squid for her and Diego, and her son and daughter are on the couch playing video games. 

NUNES: What’s the objective of this game?

SOFIA: You have to save ferries that the enemy Bowser captured.

NUNES: This is Estela’s daughter, Sofia. She’s eight. Her son, Jorge, is 13.

NUNES: What grade are you in Jorge?

JORGE: Seventh.

NUNES: How do you like school?

JORGE: It’s good, but I feel like the older kids try to feel like they’re the best, like the eight graders.

NUNES: What kind of stuff are you into?

JORGE: Mostly video games.

SOFIA: Me too. 

GONZALEZ: Sofia says she likes animals a lot, especially her dog, Bean. Jorge says he wants to be a surgeon someday or maybe an astronaut.

NUNES: So Diego just came home?

ESTELA: Yes. Diego!

NUNES: Diego.

DIEGO: Hey, how you doing?

NUNES: How are things?

DIEGO: Good, good, good.

NUNES: This is Diego, obviously. He just got home from a painting job. He and Estela got married five years ago and bought this house a few years back.

GONZALEZ: He says they got the house with the help of a loan from a guy he was doing a job for, because he couldn’t get financing from a bank.

DIEGO: People here, if you help them, and they see what you do for them, they appreciate that. There are lots of people here that are very good people.

GONZALEZ: Estela says she also loves the people at the hospital: the staff, the patients. She has a permit now to work legally in the U.S. But her situation is by no means resolved. 

NUNES: Right. So after that day when she got out of the car and was crying on the side of the road, Estela and Diego contacted an attorney. 

GONZALEZ: Estela wanted to apply to be in the U.S. legally and get on with her life. 

NUNES: The lawyer looked into her case and told Estela she had a deportation order out against her, and it’d been active for years. She was lucky to still be in the U.S.

GONZALEZ: Right. Because of that work she was doing taking classes and getting all those certifications, some of that could have exposed her to the authorities.

ESTELA: The lawyer told me, “You’re practically putting yourself like the meat on the grill, because you’re telling everybody, ‘I’m here; come and catch me.’”

NUNES: So Estela still has a deportation order out against her today. And that’s probably a little confusing to people, because she’s still in the U.S., and she’s working here legally.

GONZALEZ: Right. So the way she’s does it is she applies annually to stay her deportation and get a 12-month work permit. She’s been doing it for several years now, and so far it’s worked. 

NUNES: But it’s just a 12 month reprieve, one year at a time. And that year goes by fast. 

GONZALEZ: She’s living with a lot of uncertainty, especially after the 2016 election.  

ESTELA: When Mr. Trump get to the power, to the presidency, the lawyer he gave me really bad news, like he told me, “In your next immigration appointment, maybe they’re going to send you back.”

GONZALEZ: It’s tough news, and Estela and Diego are worried about how the kids are taking all of this.

NUNES: Right, because they hear all about President Trump and what’s happening to immigrants. Their dad isn’t under any immediate threat of deportation, but they know about their mom’s situation.

GONZALEZ: So Estela and Diego decide to take the whole family to see a therapist.

ESTELA: So many questions for my kids about how they seeing the situation. If they think that they could survive or if they would like. And Jorge was fine, but who shows more depression situation was Sofia. Yeah, Sofia was a little stress about being separate. Now I feel like she is stronger and she is she doesn’t believe that that is going to happen.

NUNES: I never talked to Sofia about her mom’s immigration status. Because she’s eight, it seemed like it’d be too much. But I did ask Jorge what he thinks about immigration more broadly. 

NUNES: Um, do you have any thoughts on that topic?

JORGE: I don’t think it’s fair because, first of all, I mean you’re not supposed to kick someone out just because they’re not born there. Because technically they’ve already settled and made their life. That’s just like kicking someone out of their house for no reason.

GONZALEZ: He’s a thoughtful kid.

NUNES: Yes. And he’s had to think about a lot of scary stuff other kids never have to worry about.

GONZALEZ: Right. Estela says Jorge has asked her about violence in Mexico. He hears about it on TV, and he wants to know: Could he and his family be killed if they had to go live there?  

NUNES: And Estela and Jorge have heavy conversations, like: What would Jorge do if ICE knocked on the door one day looking for his mom to take her away? 

ESTELA: The other day I talked to my son: “What if this happen?” And he said, “I will not open the door.” And I said, “Yeah, but if they have a note that they slide under the door and it says there is a court that requires me to be taken out from the house. You need to. You need to do it. How are you going to feel about it?” And he said, “I don’t know.” And I said, “Me neither.”

NUNES: Estela’s not totally sure what she feels about a lot of things. Or at least I get that impression when I talk to her. She changes her mind a lot.

GONZALEZ: Right. Like sometimes she’s really adamant that she wants to stay in the U.S., and she’s mad that some people don’t want to give her a chance.

ESTELA: I’m a good person. Give me the opportunity to demonstrate that I could be somebody!

NUNES: But sometimes you catch Estela on other days, like this one, and she sounds different. She’s frustrated. And you get the sense she’s had enough of the U.S. and part of her wants to go back to Mexico.

ESTELA: I never feel depression in Mexico. Never, never, never. But here, I feel sometimes, like: What is the reason? What is next?

GONZALEZ: Estela says there’s a lot about life in Mexico that’s appealing to her. The weather’s better, and she likes the food there more. 

NUNES: She also misses her family and friends back home, and all that support she says she doesn’t have in the U.S. 

ESTELA: And I really miss that. It’s been 15 years. That’s not a short period of time. 

NUNES: It sounds like you’re kind of at peace with the idea that you might have to go to Mexico and that be your life?

ESTELA: Yeah. 

GONZALEZ: When you hear Estela’s story, you can understand why she would say that. 

NUNES: Right. But she also knows going back to Mexico would really complicate things.  

GONZALEZ: Like: Would Diego need to stay in Westerly? Would Jorge and Sofia come with her? Would they split their time between both parents?

NUNES: Yeah. The simplest solution would be for all of them to stay in the U.S. And Estela thinks that is a very good possibility.

GONZALEZ: Yes. Diego has a court date in January 2020. They expect to find out then if he will be granted legal permanent residency in the United States. 

NUNES: If that happens, Estela thinks that will really improve her chances of staying in the country for good.

NUNES: What do you think you guys will do if you find out he’s getting that status to be a permanent resident?

ESTELA: I’m going to be happy. But not as happy as I have that decision for myself.

GONZALEZ: Mosaic is a production of The Public’s Radio, edited by Sally Eisele with production help from James Baumgartner and Aaron Selbig. Our original music is by Bryn Bliska. Torey Malatia is the general manager of The Public’s Radio. And thank you to Literacy Volunteers of Washington County for introducing us to Estela. I’m Ana Gonzalez.

NUNES: And I’m Alex Nunes. Thanks for listening. 

Support for this podcast comes from Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement, and the advancement of international peace and security at