On Sunday morning, Edgardo Bartolome stood in the pulpit at Filipino Immanuel Baptist Church of Chicago, an immigrant church on the city’s Northwest Side. The 68-year-old pastor began singing an old worship song:
“In his time, in his time. He makes all things beautiful in his time.”
As he sang, his 69-year-old wife Julita Bartolome, who in 2019 was suddenly deported to her native Philippines after more than 30 years in the United States, emerged from a door behind the pulpit. She was to join him in a duet of the song, but the plan was derailed when members of the congregation began to cry and rush the pulpit to hug Julita Bartolome.
Edgardo Bartolome’s son, Aaron Bartolome, had been at a different church that morning but said he later saw a video recording of his father’s stunt.
“It was a nice reunion for the people at the church,” he said. “They really missed her.”
WBEZ first reported Julita Bartolome’s deportation in 2019, during a wave of immigration crackdowns by the Trump administration. More than three years later, she is back home in Mount Prospect — for good this time, according to Katherine Del Rosario, the family’s attorney.
“It feels surreal … I feel like we’ve lived many lifetimes since that summer in 2019,” Del Rosario said. “I think they’re just eager to kind of pick up where they left off — to keep doing what they did before and serving the families at their church together.”
Del Rosario, of the McEntee Law Group, said the family’s case was delayed by a yearslong global pandemic and a typhoon in the Philippines that delayed the delivery of her immigrant visa to her mother’s home.
After news of Julita Bartolome ’s deportation gained international attention, a GoFundMe set up by a family friend raised more than $15,000 for Edgardo Bartolome to visit her that Christmas and offset some legal costs. Then, as the family settled into its new normal, the pandemic set in.
Del Rosario said the Bartolomes had to file a waiver to forgive Julita Bartolome’s initial overstay, and then apply for admission in the U.S. after deportation, demonstrating the medical and financial hardships her husband was experiencing as a result of the deportation. Del Rosario said what might have been a wait of a year and a half turned into three because of COVID and the immigration backlog it created.
“What the pandemic did is highlight just how understaffed and underfunded Immigration Services and the consulates are with many essential services,” Del Rosario said.
Aaron Bartolome, Julita’s stepson, said his stepmom had been staying at her mother’s house in the Philippines and, at one point during the pandemic, everyone in the home had COVID. He said vaccines in that area of the country were not readily available, and many people in the province were dying.
This past summer, the family finally got word that the waivers they needed to get the immigrant visa had been approved. Still, Aaron Bartolome said, they were afraid to get their hopes up until the visa arrived at Julita Bartolome’s mother’s home two weeks ago.
“That’s when we’re like, ‘It’s real,’” he said. “I think my dad bought the plane ticket [for Julita] right away.”
Del Rosario said U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Evanston, and her staff had been instrumental in securing Bartolome’s return, pushing to expedite the case despite the delays of the pandemic.
A Schakowsky spokesman sent WBEZ a statement from the congresswoman.
“The story of the Bartolome family is one that I will never forget,” she said, adding that she was devastated by the deportation and that she and her staff “made it our mission to reunite Edgardo and [Julita].”
Added Schakowsky: “There is no better feeling than being able to reunite a family.”
Aaron Bartolome said when he saw his stepmom, “we hugged each other for a really long time.” He said he had been busy with work, and that he and his dad had been eating a lot of takeout recently. “My dad and I were laughing because now we have groceries at home” — including Aaron Bartolome’s favorite snacks that Julita Bartolome remembered to buy at the Chicago supermarket Seafood City.
He said his parents and extended family members were shell-shocked by the media attention following her deportation, and that they did not want to be interviewed about the reunion. But Aaron Bartolome said he wants to share the family’s story because it could help “other families that are hurting.”
He said the way in which his stepmom was detained and deported was “heartless, insensitive, [with] no compassion at all,” recalling those fearful first days when he and his dad did not know where Julita Bartolome was, when she did not have toothpaste or soap in the detention center where she was being held.
Del Rosario said the deportation — one of the first such cases she had taken on in her young career — was “very important for me, as an attorney, as a Filipino American person, as someone’s daughter.”
She says her current practice is more focused on family and employment-based immigration, but she continues to provide legal help to low-income immigrants and refugees through the Alliance for Immigrant Neighbors, a nonprofit clinic she cofounded during law school.
Del Rosario said the Bartolomes’s story led to many other Filipino immigrants reaching out to her with their own case questions.
“Seeing a Filipino family go through this was really compelling for people who might not otherwise pay attention to immigration issues that usually have different faces and stories associated with them,” she said. The Bartolomes’s case “[raised] awareness about the need to get quality, accurate legal advice.”
She said she is closing a “very painful chapter,” but one that ended in a joyful, hopeful way, and added that she was eager to see the Bartolomes in person soon.
“I see them gardening together, talking with each other, cooking for loved ones … just live out the rest of their years together.” Del Rosario said. “I hope all of these things for them.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.