After Decades-Long Immigration Fight, A Chicago-Area Family Says Goodbye To Its Matriarch
In 2000, two years after his first wife died of cancer, Edgardo Bartolome received a phone call from an unknown number. It was a woman’s voice on the other end of the line.
“When she called me, the first question she asked is, ‘How are your kids?’” he recalls. He asked her who she was and again the woman asked, “How are your kids?”
Edgardo asked who she was one more time and the woman finally said, “Julita Rafael.”
The name rang a bell: Julita — better known as Julie — was a friend of his first wife and a neighbor from the same province where Edgardo came from in the Philippines. Edgardo said he knew right away that Julie would be his wife someday. “She helped me raise my kids when my kids lost their mom,” Edgardo said, his voice breaking with emotion.
Edgardo, a U.S. citizen living in Illinois, took a trip to Florida to visit her. They soon fell in love.
Edgardo’s son, Aaron — now 33 and a philosophy instructor at the College of DuPage — remembers a marked change in his home when Julie married his dad and moved in.
Edgardo, who took on both a paternal and maternal role after his first wife’s death, had struggled to connect with Aaron and his sister, Grace Joy, who now lives in Arizona. Things at home were “awkward” and “quiet,” Aaron said.
“But when [my dad] married my stepmom, the whole home changed,” Aaron said. “We were a family, and there was laughter and my dad was happy.”
Julie, 66, and Edgardo, 64, were — as Aaron describes them — “a unit.” They were always together. She would garden while Edgardo mowed the lawn. They’d pray together in the living room, sometimes for hours. They’d watch YouTube clips of Filipino music shows together. They’d minister to the sick and dying at Filipino Immanuel Baptist Church on Chicago’s Northwest Side, where Edgardo is a part-time pastor.
In 2002, Edgardo and Julita filed a family petition, called an I-130, which essentially acknowledges the familial relationship of a U.S. citizen to a noncitizen and allows them to apply for legal status. But Julie had an outstanding removal order originating in Miami, so she had to wait 10 years.
Julie had arrived in the United States in 1988 as a domestic worker, but she overstayed her visa. She applied for asylum, like many Filipinos did during the ’80s after fleeing the Marcos regime, but was denied and referred to immigration court. There, she was granted voluntary departure and ordered to return to the Philippines. Julie appealed the case but the judge dismissed her appeal.
Her lawyer at the time, however, did not notify Julie of the judge’s decision and that the removal order was still in effect. It was at around the same time that Julie moved to Illinois, married Edgardo, and began helping to raise Aaron and Grace Joy in northwest suburban Mount Prospect. If she was supposed to leave the country, she didn't know.
During the next 15 years or so, the Bartolomes wrote letters to lawmakers, appealing to former President George W. Bush, then-Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Dick Durbin and, later, President Obama, to reopen her case.
In 2017, thinking that refiling the I-130 would lead to Julie finally getting a green card, the Bartolomes resubmitted the petition.
Katherine Del Rosario, the Bartolomes’ new lawyer as of July, said the Bartolomes — like most Americans — didn’t understand the complexities of U.S. immigration policy.
“English is their second language, and I could tell they really did not understand what was going on with their case,” Del Rosario said.
On July 17, the Bartolomes went downtown to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for their standard I-130 interview.
“My parents were very happy,” Aaron said. “They were celebrating, they were thanking God. It was approved, they stamped it and it was a happy time for them.” And then, another officer came in. They called Julie by her maiden name, Julita Rafael, and led her away.
According to Del Rosario, USCIS had informed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about Julie’s removal order. Essentially, the Bartolomes “brought themselves to the attention of ICE when she might have not really otherwise been noticed,” Del Rosario said.
Julie had “no negatives in her case,” Del Rosario said. “It’s approvable for a green card. She has no criminal history; [the Bartolomes] have a bona fide marriage.”
Del Rosario added: “They’ve just never been able to afford an attorney and as a result have found themselves in this position. They were trying to do the right thing, do their best.”
After the arrest
After Julie was arrested, Edgardo drove home alone.
“I was shocked and stunned, and I don’t know where to go, asking people, ‘Where’s my wife?’” he recalls. “And then I’m crying, I’m crying coming home, driving slowly.”
His son, Aaron, sprang to action. He made calls, did research online, asked friends for legal advice. The family retained Del Rosario, a first-year associate at Davidson & Seseri who had known Aaron and Grace Joy growing up.
“Those first few days were just very hectic and scary,” Aaron said. “And we didn’t know the conditions she was in.”
After a brief phone call in which Julie mentioned the word “McHenry,” Aaron was able to figure out that she was being detained at the McHenry County Jail in Woodstock, Ill.
And then he learned that he needed to create accounts for the things Julie needed while she was in jail: funds for phone calls and video chats, and basic toiletries like toothpaste and soap. Julie’s glasses broke while she was at the jail; no one would give her any tape, so she peeled off the sticker from a medicine bottle to put the spectacles back together.
Edgardo and the rest of the family could not visit Julie in the flesh. According to the jail’s website, families are are not allowed to visit detainees in person without a court order. Instead, the Bartolomes paid $12.50 to use a video kiosk at the jail to see Julie for 25 minutes at a time.
Still, Aaron said the family was thankful.
“Thank God that we have a lawyer funded by our friends and family; thank God that I speak perfect English and I could talk to people,” he said. “But there’s some people that don’t have that.”
During this time, the impact of Julie’s absence was noticeable. Aaron said Edgardo lost weight. Edgardo’s church ministry — especially its work around immigrant women — suffered without Julie and her comforting, warm, female presence. Aaron would come home sometimes and see Edgardo staring blankly in his chair, next to the empty one where Julie used to sit.
“It’s just very quiet,” he said. “It’s just me and my dad.”
On Aug. 20, Del Rosario, Julie’s lawyer, arranged a phone call for her client to speak to me. Julie was polite and upbeat, talking about spending her days going to Bible study and mentoring some of her fellow detainees with her limited English. She was sleeping and eating OK — “too much food,” she said.
When I asked her what she missed, Julie broke down. Between sobs, she said, “I miss my husband, children, church... ministry of the church. I miss all of that.”
Julie said she was worried about Edgardo and his allergies, and that he was losing too much weight. She said she’s been crying only privately because she didn’t want the other detainees to lose hope.
“I’ve been here for 31 years in America, I don’t know what am I going to do [in the Philippines],” she said. “I want to be with Ed.”
After the call, Del Rosario, who had been listening in, said, “She’s never broken down on the phone. When I talk to Aaron, he says, ‘Oh, she’s just staying really positive,’ so that was hard to hear.”
Del Rosario said she thinks Julie had been holding it all in. “She really is like a saint,” she said. “I want to do right by her.”
In the month or so since she was retained by the Bartolome family, Del Rosario, with help from her supervisor, tried everything she could think of to get Julie out. She pleaded with the ICE officer in charge of Julie’s deportation. She filed multiple requests for a stay of removal. She asked ICE’s Office of Chief Counsel to review the case. She called lawmakers to intervene.
But on Aug. 21, Del Rosario received a curt email from the ICE officer that Julie would be deported the very next day. The officer instructed the family to arrive at an ICE facility in west suburban Broadview by 8 a.m., with Julie’s luggage and personal effects weighing no more than 40 pounds. He closed the email with: “Have a good evening.”
Del Rosario shared the news with Aaron, who would then notify Edgardo. When Del Rosario spoke with Julie early that evening, her client suggested that she not tell Edgardo for fear he would be devastated. When Julie started fretting about his health, Del Rosario said she told her: “Let’s think about you today.”
Meanwhile, Aaron set up one final video chat for his dad and Julie. Edgardo drove 40 miles each way to McHenry jail to talk to his wife. She told him to stay healthy. He told her not to fuss if her relatives in the Philippines had a messy home. That made her laugh. She asked him to pack her vitamins and supplements for her osteoporosis. He told her he loved her.
Edgardo then came home to pack. He slept a couple of hours and woke to his daily alarm clock set for 3 a.m., which is when he gets up every day for his job as a custodian at Moody Bible Institute, where he makes about $450 a week. Edgardo said he struggles to pay his bills, but he’s never sought public aid.
“We never apply for food stamp or any kind of help from the government,” he said, choking up. “I work hard to provide for my family.”
A lifelong Republican, Edgardo said he voted for President Donald Trump in 2016. Next year, he said, he will not be voting for Trump. For his son, Aaron, that’s a big deal.
“This experience has changed [my father] a lot,” Aaron said. “Now my dad even talks about the problems that undocumented immigrants face who are not Filipinos.”
Edgardo, who says he doesn’t know whom he’ll support in next year’s presidential race, said, “We don’t want to be a burden to the United States of America because we thank God for this country.”
"It really, really hurts"
On Aug. 22, an unusually cool summer day, Edgardo and Aaron set out from their Mount Prospect home at around 6 a.m. Edgardo, broad-shouldered with a full head of close-cropped white hair, wore a blue button-down tucked neatly into his jeans. Aaron sported a man bun, a T-shirt, gym shorts and a fanny pack.
Aaron mostly listened as he drove; Edgardo did most of the talking.
“It’s hard to explain, but Julie and I have a lot of respect for the authority,” he said. “At the same time, it hurts … it really, really hurts.”
He pointed out that Julie did not enter the United States illegally, and that she didn’t have a criminal record.
“After we get married... we never received any papers from immigration office from Miami,” he said.
He planned to appeal to the ICE officers at the Broadview facility.
“Hopefully, I can beg to the officers,” he said, still clinging to hope that Julie could be released.
The family arrived in Broadview at 6:30 a.m. and Del Rosario got there 15 minutes later. With the sun coming up over the commercial printer building across the street and the factories humming around them, the trio stood on the sidewalk and chatted about the Philippines, Julie and the next steps to take to try and get her back to the United States.
Edgardo talked about faith, delivering a mini-sermon.
“God knows we’re hurting; God knows we’re limited, fragile, weak,” he said. “Of course I will ask the Lord, how can I overcome? I have to love God, to love people. Endure, sacrifice.”
Aaron walked up to the door to ask if Julie had arrived. Not yet, they said.
“There’s a sign on the door, and it says, ‘no contact between detainees or families or inmates,’” he informed his dad. “I’m hoping that someone has the authority or the power to grant us that, just so we can say bye and give her a hug.”
Del Rosario got updates from her firm, where her supervisor was working with U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s office until the last minute to get a stay of removal.
At around 8:15 a.m., a van with no windows and a “Do not approach” sign pulled up to the building and went inside the enclosed garage. Thirty minutes after that, the guard called the family over. No phones or recording equipment, he said — just photo IDs.
Just before the family was summoned, Del Rosario heard from her supervisor: The final request for a stay of removal was denied. ICE’s Office of the Chief Counsel declined to review the case. The family’s fight was officially over.
"Can I please have my wife?"
Inside, there was a lobby with dark blue walls. As soon as the family walked in, they were greeted by the American flag and pictures of Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Kirstjen Nielsen, the former secretary of homeland security who resigned in April. A large plaque on the wall read: “With honor and integrity, we will safeguard the American people, our homeland and our values.”
The family went into a drab visitation area, which had a window into an adjacent room. A female officer brought Julie in. The Bartolomes and Del Rosario cried and talked through a receiver, and they put their hands on the glass as if to touch each other.
The guard and the officer picked through Julie’s luggage, looking at all the stuff Edgardo had gingerly packed the night before: three pairs of shoes, colorful clothes all wrapped in a large plastic bag inside the suitcase the Bartolomes borrowed from Aaron’s girlfriend. The officers pulled out the vitamins and told the family Julie couldn’t take them with her; they were not prescription meds.
More than once, Edgardo stepped out of the visitation room and walked over to the guard to plead, through tears, “Can I please have my wife?”
About 10 minutes later, the officer took Julie away. The family never got to be in the same room.
Aaron draped his arm over his father’s shoulder as they walked out with a tearful Del Rosario. Edgardo began to cry next to his car, and Del Rosario gave him a hug.
“I just cannot help it,” he said.
Edgardo and Aaron thanked Del Rosario for her hard work and she drove back to the city. The father and son started up the car and headed back to Mount Prospect.
“Stay healthy, eat well,” Edgardo said Julie told him. “We’ll see each other soon … don’t cry.”
Aaron said Julie told him to take care of his father and sister and to be careful at the jiu-jitsu tournament he was competing in the next day. She also asked him to relay her thanks to the friends and family who had been praying for them and providing financial help.
The rest of the way home, the Bartolomes talked like brothers about everything. Aaron asked his dad when he was planning on retiring. Edgardo wondered if there was any way to speed up Julie’s return to the U.S. And he warned his son about getting traffic tickets.
“Just be careful, it’s not in our budget — all these tickets,” he said.
That afternoon, as they waited for Julie to call from the airport and give her flight information, Schakowsky’s office was still trying to intervene, communicating the whole time with Del Rosario. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin had also gotten involved.
Meanwhile, Edgardo came home and fell asleep. He missed Julie’s airport call. She left a voicemail saying that she had boarded a flight that would arrive in Manila the next day.
The next day, at around 3 p.m., Aaron got word that Julie’s relatives had picked her up from the airport and that she was with them. They texted him a picture of her — a selfie that her sister took. In the background, their 82-year-old mom was clinging to her newly returned daughter. Julie’s phone was visible on her lap, with texts from her loved ones in the United States.
Back in Mount Prospect, Edgardo was lonely for “his best friend,” Aaron said. But he was also relieved that she is no longer in jail.
Aaron said some extended family have been unhappy with media attention on what they see as a private “family problem.” But Aaron said he and his father want others to know how real families are being affected by U.S. immigration policy.
On Aug. 26, a friend of the Bartolomes started a GoFundMe page to cover the family’s legal bills as well as a trip for Edgardo to visit Julie in the Philippines. That morning, Durbin held a news conference decrying the Trump administration’s efforts to underfund the census — another battleground for immigrants in the country. When asked if he could help expedite Julie’s return, Durbin said, “We will try.”
Del Rosario said that she is working on the waivers that will forgive the deportation and allow her client to re-enter the United States. And then, she said, the family will apply for an immigrant visa for Julie.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.