It’s almost as if Letty Stegall is there, back home in the United States, beside her daughter to prod her awake for school. When her husband goes to the grocery store, she fusses over the list with him. At the bar she helped run, she still gives regulars a warm welcome, and around the dinner table at night, she beams when she sees what her family managed to cook.
But Stegall’s face only appears on a screen, and her words come in unreliable cell connections and a barrage of texts. Lives once lived together are divided by some 1,600 miles. A woman who married an American and gave birth to an American and who came to think of herself as American, too, is now deported to her native Mexico. “I wish I was there. That’s all that I want,” she says of her life in Kansas City, Missouri. “I want my family back.”
As the United States takes a harder line on immigration, thousands who called the country home are being forced to go. Often, they leave behind spouses and children with American citizenship and must figure out how to go on with families fractured apart. Studies have found an estimated 8 million to 9 million Americans, the majority of them children live with at least one relative who is in the country illegally, and so each action to deport an immigrant is just as likely to entangle a citizen or legal U.S. resident.
Stegall’s deportation means she could be banned from the U.S. for a decade. She prays paperwork seeking to validate her return through her marriage could wind through the system within two years, but there is no guarantee.
For now, she is a stranger in the vaguely familiar land she left as a 21-year-old in 1999, her phone and laptop the only windows to a life that’s no longer hers. When her 17-year-old daughter, Jennifer Tadeo-Uscanga, arrives home from school, Stegall is there on FaceTime to greet her. She watches streaming feeds from 16 cameras at the bar she manages remotely. She gives Steve Stegall, her husband of six years, a goodnight kiss by pressing her lips to her cellphone screen.
The four-dimensional, analog world she loved has been flattened and digitized. She recognizes how odd it all may seem, but she wonders what other choice she has. Should she pull Jennifer from the only country she’s ever known, where her dreams of college and career seem so achievable? Should she ask Steve _ born and bred in Kansas City _ to abandon their business and home and come to a place where he can’t speak the language and his safety might be jeopardized by drug cartels?
The questions hang in the thick summer air. “I lost everything,” she says. “It’s just me.”
Stegall walks down streets of modest, brightly painted homes, past a tree dangling with yellow guavas and beside a butcher shop where red sausages are strung up like Christmas garland. Palms splash against clear blue skies, and swaths of purple flowers hold court below.
Beauty can be found everywhere in Boca del Rio, a small city along the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s hard for Stegall to see. Even as she rounds the bend and a striking panorama of blue sea appears before her, it does little to lift her. She splashes the salt water on her face and rubs it on her arms. This would be a nice vacation, she says, but it’s all a cheap copy of the life she had a few months ago.
Stegall grew up two hours from here in Cosamaloapan, a flat, crop-dotted part of Veracruz, the state that hugs a broad chunk of Mexico’s eastern coast. Her parents’ furniture business afforded a comfortable existence, but drawn by the stories of a cousin who settled in Overland Park, Kansas, Stegall was convinced there was greater opportunity for her in the U.S. She paid a smuggler $3,000 to lead her across the Rio Grande. She was caught and returned to Mexico but crossed successfully a day later. When she made it to the Kansas City area, she found a job busing tables, working her way up through a string of restaurants to become a server and bartender and manager.
She got married and had Jennifer, but later divorced. Then she fell in love with Steve, who came to see Jennifer as his own. Stegall mastered the language and watched her paychecks grow. She and Steve bought a home, and soon Stegall became the heart of The Blue Line , the bar they ran together. When the Olympics aired, she’d drape herself in red, white and blue, and when the national anthem sounded, she’d nudge her husband to remove his hat as she stood solemnly, goose bumps covering her body.
All the while, her parents told of kidnappings and decapitations back in Cosamaloapan, of the cartel taking over and the family being forced out. They deserted their home and business, and fled for Boca del Rio. She thanked God she had escaped. She didn’t think she’d ever return.