As Laura Galeano and her family watched CNN on Nov. 20 for the announcement by President Barack Obama of a controversial executive order that would seemingly clear the path and protect about 4.5 million illegal immigrants from deportation, a tear streamed down the 37-year-old Galeano’s face.
Her daughter, who was born in the United States and attends Chelsea schools, was puzzled at the emotion.
Why would her mother cry about something that didn’t affect her directly?
Then the young lady looked at her father and her brother – who were also crying.
“My daughter said, ‘You’re all undocumented?'” recalled Galeano. “She said, ‘Mom, I can’t believe it. I never knew all of you were undocumented.’ It was the first time in her life that she knew her mother, father and brother had been hiding in the shadows all this time. I had to tell her we were undocumented. She never knew until that night. My son knew, but she never knew that we were all undocumented except her. I never wanted to tell her; I didn’t want her to worry about it or think about it.
“Imagine, I have a blended family with citizenship and that’s hard,” she continued. “My daughter is a citizen and has all the rights and privileges of a citizen. My son is completely undocumented and has access to nothing. He couldn’t participate in the summer work programs, and college has been on our minds. It was devastating to him…My only hope was that my daughter would get older and would remember her brother and be good to him due to her opportunities. It was just such a happy night to know we didn’t have to worry about that anymore.”
The announcement two weeks ago, as controversial as it was, was heart-rendering for those who are here illegally and have existed without status for some time. For all of those who, like Galeano, were overjoyed by the announcement, so many others were heartbroken because they seemingly didn’t fit into the circle of protection. Many who recently came as unaccompanied minors do not qualify and those who have been here for years, but don’t have children, also don’t qualify.
Chelsea Collaborative Director Gladys Vega said it truly was bitter and sweet at the same time. She said about 30 people gathered at Tito’s Bakery to watch the announcement together, and it was quite apparent that there were two stories unfolding with the announcement.
“I watched a man and woman at the viewing party who are married and were holding hands,” said Vega. “The woman was so overjoyed because she had a child from a previous marriage and she qualified under the order. However, her husband had no children and it didn’t seem like he qualified. They were happy and they were heartbroken at the same time. What will happen to him? We see so many of those situations.”
While a lot of the initial excitement has died down and other news items have cropped up on the front pages instead, Vega said they are just now getting down to the nitty gritty of what the order means. So much of it, she said, is still unknown and she said there is a clear need for more meaningful reform.
“Now we wait, just like deferred action two years ago,” she said. ” We waited about 60 days for that and when the specifics came down we had meetings here and processed all the papers. The next step for many people is to gather up papers that show they’ve been here five years and have children who are citizens. Documents are important and people need to save all their documents. A lot of people we know are doing just that right now.”
She said more needs to be done though in Washington, D.C.
“Having the executive order is great, but it’s just the beginning of what we ought to be doing to address all the people who the U.S. has not been able to deal with for so long,” she said. “For me, it’s very, very important that when it comes to immigration, we need to deal with and legalize everyone that is here.”
MANY LEFT OUT
Part of the reason the seemingly joyous occasion is a mixed bag is that of the millions who are here illegally, only a portion seem to fit into the most recent circle of protection. Two years ago, some 2 million young people brought as children were protected by deferred action. It is estimated that the recent order will protect 4.5 million. That leaves more than, perhaps, 10 million still in the lurch.
One of those is Chelsea resident Patricia Clara – who has been active in Chelsea for several years after overstaying her visa from Italy in 2003. A difficult family situation and her decision to come out as a lesbian have complicated her quest for legality. Once a nun serving God in Italy, Clara is childless and finds herself outside the lines of the Nov. 20 announcement.
“As I was reading about it on Nov. 20 and not being able to identify myself in the executive order or whether I fit into that hole, I just said, ‘I don’t care anymore,'” she said. “It was frustrating. I just decided there was really nothing for me to do except check my papers with my sister again.”
Clara grew up in El Salvador during the Civil War years and witnessed the murder of a family member while playing on a playground. With her life in danger, she fled to Guatemala – hiding under watermelons as she was smuggled on a fruit cart over the border to an uncle.
She would really never see her parents again.
In Guatemala, she spent most of her time in the church and began a route to serving God as a nun. Eventually she was transferred to a convent in Italy and became a nun there for eight years. However, around 2001 she said she began to have doubts, and made the decision to come out as a lesbian. The convent gave her time to think about it, and she got visas to travel to the Boston area several times over a two-year period.
In 2003, she made a final decision to leave her service in Italy and overstay her visa. She was also in the middle of applying for citizenship through her sister, who lived in Chelsea.
However, Clara said her personal declarations got in the way of that, and it left her without status due to no longer being protected by the church and what she believes are reservations by her sister. Now, she would face deportation back to a country – El Salvador – that she hasn’t seen since she was a young child.
“It was very hard for me because I left the work I was doing; I left my service to God,” she said. “It was very hard for my sister to accept that I had left my service. I don’t know what became of my documentation. My sister was helping me and things were going well until I came out as a lesbian. I don’t think my sister liked that and she wanted me to be a nun and didn’t accept it. We did everything right and I paid the fees. We have a letter and it said they received my papers. I had appointments. I just don’t know what happened, and I’m still in the dark. This didn’t help me, but I’m just not afraid anymore.”
JOY CANNOT BE MEASURED
As tough as many found it who were left out, those like Galeano had an unbelievable weight lifted.
Galeano, her husband and her son, who was 1, came to Chelsea 13 years ago on a visa from Uruguay. When their visa expired, they stayed.
For a long time, they weren’t working because they were scared. However, Galeano eventually began working at a cafe and gradually was less fearful of going to work.
But the fear and guilt of being here illegally was the guiding light in almost everything has happened in her and her husband’s life since coming to Chelsea. Even in pregnancy – when she had her daughter – the status issue turned the happy time into a horrible experience.
“My pregnancy was not happy at all,” she said. “It was happy to know I had a life in me, but unhappy because I had no idea what would happen to that baby when I had to face the truth and tell people I was undocumented. We kept that a secret. We were afraid they would put my baby up for adoption when they learned I didn’t have my papers. That was such a big fear for us.”
The fear was unfounded, naturally, but the sense of not knowing the consequences at every major step in life was something that Galeano has had to live with.
A summer job for her son became a heartbreaking time.
Getting a job for herself required a lot of explaining.
Taking the kids to the park was risky.
Enrolling kids in school and even calling the police when a crime had occurred; all were routine things that were part of the great unknown for Galeano. Every mundane action, she said, was a potential opportunity to be deported back to Uruguay.
It’s why the Nov. 20 announcement was so powerful for her.
“I feel happy and I feel free,” she said. “I feel like I can let my son go out and I can go out and be safe from authorities that are safeguarding the community. My biggest fear was calling the police if I had a problem with my neighbor or I saw something suspicious. I wanted to call so many times, but I didn’t know what would happen to me.”
For Galeano, 9-1-1 is not so scary any longer, and the fear around every corner has subsided – even if just temporarily.