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The Apple Picker

A three month investigation led by Sarah Stillman in the Global Migration Project at Columbia Journalism School, examining the evolution of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under President Trump.

Excerpts of this text were rewritten and published by Sarah Stillman in The New Yorker. In the published version, Sarah described our collaborative process:

As the director of the Global Migration Project, at Columbia Journalism School, I spent the spring supervising a team of twelve journalists who sought to understand the evolution of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under President Trump. We began by assembling a database of enforcement activity: pulling in information from all fifty states on local raids, family separations, immigration-detention trends, and more. For three months, we scoured law-enforcement blotters, public ice memos, local news sources, and social-media forums. We then spoke with individuals facing removal proceedings around the country, as well as their attorneys, employers, colleagues, spouses, and children.

Below you can read the original text, which was selected among twelve submissions to be partially included in The New Yorker’s final version.

Dolores Bustamante holds an apple. Source:  Rochester City Newspaper

Dolores Bustamante holds an apple. Source: Rochester City Newspaper

A handwritten letter from Ms. Bustamante’s daughter at the age of 6.

A handwritten letter from Ms. Bustamante’s daughter at the age of 6.

 

Her hands, robust and scarred from years of labor in the countryside, were now in handcuffs as she sat in the back of a U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement truck that drove south, towards Pennsylvania. Dolores Bustamante didn't know what was going to happen; she didn't even want to think about it. Instead, she made her best efforts to avoid thinking about the many steps that had brought her into the back of this truck – and the uncertain steps that lay ahead.

Dolores’ arrest occurred one October morning in 2014. As she drove down New York State Highway 104, headed for church. Her 14 year-old daughter sat next to her, as they listened to the radio. A New York State police patrol drove behind them. The car turned on the lights; the siren went off.

- “License, please,” the officer asked.
- “I don't have one,” she replied, handing her passport to the officer.
- “Wait here,” he said, walking back to his car. He returned to ask,
- "Are you a legal resident of the United States?”
- “No voy a responder eso,” she said, in Spanish: 'I’m not going to answer that.

The officer didn't speak Spanish and she didn't speak any English. He pulled out his phone and typed into Google Translate: “An interpreter is on its way,” so Dolores waited. She was frightened. “I knew what could happen,” she remembered. She called a friend who spoke good English to help with the translation, but the officer quickly shut the woman down saying she had no business in that conversation.

“The interpreter they promised never arrived, instead, migration came,” she said. When Spanish-speaking Border Patrol officers arrived, they made it clear that they weren't there to translate; they’d come, instead, to take her to an immigration detention center. Meanwhile, drivers stopped and gathered around the event. The officers didn't like the attention: “You are all here only to get us in trouble!,” Dolores remembered one of the Border Patrol officers said.

They handcuffed Dolores and took her away as her daughter watched.

Amidst her anxiety, Dolores didn't ask questions. “It was too much,” she said. The events that came before her arrest weighed in her memory, so she avoided those thoughts too. After 14 years living and working in the U.S., all the memories that seemed left behind, came back to daunt her.

She was taken to Oswego Border Patrol Station, where she sat for hours. The officers tried to make her sign some documents. They told her the documents had to do with her fingerprints and for her detention records. They were in English and she was there without a lawyer, so she said no.

She sat on a cement bench in a cement cell, trying to sleep. Her arrest had begun in the early morning, but by now the sun had set.

“I lost track of time. I don't know for how long I stood there,” Dolores said, as she waited for the worse to happen. “I don't know anyone in this town, who's gonna watch for me? I only have my daughter and she's barely 14, what can she do? She can’t do anything for me.” One of Dolores' friends had taken the girl home, and she cried herself to sleep.

"I never expected for things to happen the way they would.”

 

***

“Dolores” means “pain” in Spanish.

She was born in the state of Morelos, in a small rural town near Mexico City. She was the second of four children, who all grew up without a father. He left them before Dolores memorized his face.

“There wasn't much to do where I grew up,” she recalls. The town where she was born had two schools only; the roads were made of dirt and families made a living from working in corn fields. She spent her time at a nearby river, playing with neighbors.

Her mother could barely make ends meet and she didn't want to be a burden so, by the age of 16, Dolores had moved in with a man six years older than her. “He was nice —at the beginning,” she said.

“But as soon as we moved in together, he started beating me up,” she continued, her voice breaking down.  “I didn't have a father to stand up for me. I only had my mother.”

Things got worse with time and they soon began having children, which complicated everything so much more.

“A normal day, without beatings, would be: ‘You’re good for nothing. Who do you think would want you like that?’ He would always take it out on me. That was a normal day,” Dolores spoke in whispers.

Then there were bad days, “One time he stripped me down, he beat me and pushed me out into the street, he told me to leave.” The man she lived with had money, but Dolores had nothing.

With him, she had four children, and the fear of facing life on her own wouldn't let her scape. Dolores was frightened of him but she was also frightened by the idea of not having anyone at all. “I had nowhere to go when these things happened,” she said. “My mother was very poor. My dad abandoned her. She was the only family I had.”

The one time she went to the police, the officer told her that she should return home before her husband sued her for abandonment of family. Mexican authorities have a well-documented history of refusing to intervene with domestic abuse.

“He found himself a mistress. It was the only time I got some rest because he would spend more time with her and wouldn't come home as much,” Dolores said. Her children, especially the older ones, had to witness their mother’s abuse. This went on, periodically, for thirteen years.

One day at her job, Antonio, a co-worker, told her that he was leaving to the U.S. “I can help you. You don't have to stay here like that,” he told her. He even offered to pay for the cost of being smuggled. It was a complicated decision: she had four children and if her husband found out, it would work out for the worse.

One thing was sure in her mind:, if she stayed, she would always be a victim. Dolores made a plan: she wouldn't tell anyone about it, not even her mother, her brothers, or her children. She drew out dreams about the future, most of them founded on the word of mouth from immigrants who returned before her, “I don't know why they lie,” she said. “They say that you can come here and make good money, they speak wonders. The dreams I had were to come here, work hard, have a business, have a house…”

On November 28, 2003, Dolores left with her 3 year-old daughter. She decided to bring the youngest one, who needed more care than the rest. Dolores' mother struggled to make a living and she wouldn't be able to take care of a baby. “It was heartbreaking because I couldn't bring all of my children with me,” she said.

***

Dolores and Antonio walked in a line of twelve people. It was 4am in the middle of the Arizona desert. “It was dark and it was freezing, we couldn't see anything. I carried my 3 year-old with a blanket to cover her from the cold,” Dolores recalls.

“Prepare yourselves, we have to run from here on, until we find the first bushes,” the guide whispered to the group. “There was nothing around us. Nothing. We stood in front of this highway, in the middle of the desert, with no place to hide, not even a small bush,” Dolores said. “I felt like I couldn't do it anymore. I just wanted to stay where we were, I wanted to sit down. It was very hard.” 

Dolores ran through the desert, carrying her daughter, for over 15 hours.

When they arrived to Tucson, it was 9p.m. But that was barely the beginning. The group got on a truck that drove from Arizona to Los Angeles. Then from L.A. to the other side of the country.

The whole endeavor lasted over a week, and not a single day was easy for Dolores.

Antonio's sister had a house in New Jersey, where the three began to live. But he soon stopped being a helping hand.

“He tried to take advantage of me,” Dolores said, as her voice went back to whispers again. “I used to think that maybe he knew someone, that maybe he’d make some calls and make me go back to the father of my children. I didn't know any better.” Antonio wouldn't allow her to call back home. Not her children, not her mother. Sometimes he'd lock her inside the room.

Dolores owed Antonio $5,000 —the price for smuggling her and her daughter. Money for rent, money to send back to Mexico, for the children she could not afford to bring, money for her new debt, money for her daughter’s daycare.

At 4:30 am, she woke up. At 5 she took her daughter to daycare. Her shift as an industrial worker started at 7am and finished at 4pm. At 4:30 pm she picked her daughter up and took her home, where she waited for a van to pick her up for her night shift as an office cleaner.

Dolores got home after midnight every day, which meant seeing her daughter for 30 minutes a day on average. "There are no weekends in these jobs," Dolores remembered.

“Mom, don't go to work today. Can't you see I need you too?,” her daughter said one morning when she woke up sick. Dolores left to work with a broken heart that day.

On the other hand, Dolores had to deal with her debt. “I lived in this man’s house and, after a while, we had a relationship… a forced relationship. It was horrible,” she recalls. “I would get home after midnight, tired. He would want to have sex with me but I just wanted to rest.” Antonio forced Dolores to have sex, not one night, but several. Her silence came with tears, "I couldn't do anything. It was humiliating,” she said.

Dolores never thought about pressing charges against him. “I didn't know about laws or about anything, specially here… What if I sued him and instead of getting help I got deported? Suing him never crossed my mind,” she said.

She ended up were she began, but on the U.S. side of the Mexican border.

It took her two years to pay her debt and rent a new apartment. As soon as she could, she escaped from Antonio too.

A friend at the factory helped Dolores got a job as a farmworker in Florida. It wasn't the most appealing option for her, she had dreaded working in the fields back home. But maybe if she took the chance, she wouldn't have to work two shifts, and she could spend some time with her daughter. So that's how she started working throughout the seasons —first picking up pumpkins, then cutting watermelons. The job took her through more than five U.S. states.

Eventually she met a man.

“In the fields men think that just because you're alone, you're looking for someone. They can’t see a women alone because they become disrespectful, especially when you don't know your rights,” Dolores said.

He started behaving in a way that Dolores knew too well.

One morning he got up while Dolores was making breakfast in a hurry. The pickup truck would come for them soon. He wanted to have sex. She didn't. He began beating her. First in the head, then in the ribs. He dragged her by the hair around the house.

When he momentarily stepped outside of the house, Dolores locked herself in, blocked the door with a mattress and called the police. By the time they arrived, the man had fled.

Dolores never met enough people to talk about what had happened to her. “I went from my house straight to work, and then back. My work started from the moment you can see, until the moment you can’t see anymore. Saturdays, Sundays, I didn't have days off,” she remembered. And that was her life, everyday, for almost a decade in the U.S.

In 2010, Dolores left the company for good.

Her middle son was 18 years old and on his way to the U.S. Soon after he arrived, they started working the fields together. Her son was tall and stood up for her. “He would tell anyone not to mess with me… and it felt good because I never had that before. I never had anyone to protect me,” she said with a trembling voice.

But shortly after, her son was deported and she was all on her own again.

***

 

“Wayne County: The core of apple country,” reads an online advertisement. Tourists go to Wayne during apple season. They visit the farms, pick some apples and eat them too. It is the number one apple producer in the state.

In 2012, she went to the apple state. “I came here for the apples, but this time I came alone,” she said, giggling.

Honeycrisps, Red Delicious, Gala, Fuji: You name them, she picked them.

According to USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, New York's apple industry generates over 10,000 agricultural jobs and 1,200,000,000 pounds of apple production.

In the state, over 30 million bushes are sold as fresh market fruits and sent to farmers markets, Trader Joe’s and other supermarkets across the country. There's a good chance that Dolores picked an apple that ended in New Yorkers tables.

After her son left, Dolores promised herself, “I told myself that I wouldn't let anyone else humiliate me only because I don't know how to do things.”

“I didn't know how to drive, so I taught myself. I didn't know how to work, so I taught myself,” she said in tears.

“I think a lot of times, women stand things because we rely on other people, because we don't know how to do some things. It makes us tolerate things that we shouldn't. Not knowing the law, not knowing that I –that we— have rights, it makes us endure too many things,” she said, tearful.

Because her life was exclusively devoted to her job, Dolores never made too many friends, or people she could trust to know her story. “I used to think that if I spoke to the police, they would deport me. That's the mentality we come with,” she said.

That all changed when she arrived to New York. First, a coworker invited her to “Mujeres Divinas” a group designed to empower female farm workers. She was hooked from the start. Through them, she learned that she had rights, civil and human.

“With them I found out that not having documents doesn't mean that we can’t do something,” she said. “I didn't know the laws, never mind that there was such a thing as an asylum. I came here just to work.” She came to discover all of these things that made her stronger, steadier. Shortly after she became an active member of the church, and a beloved member of the Justice Workers Center of New York (JWC), an organization that provides legal representation and advocates for agricultural workers. At JWC she met Carly Fox, a staff member, who would eventually change Dolores future.

Dolores’ life took a turn for the better. Her daughter became a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient in 2013, a relief put in place by the Obama administration to give some young undocumented immigrants protection from deportation, and a temporary work permit. They were finally setting in, feeling home.

Dolores took pride in having supported her children in Mexico and providing a good education for her daughter here, but most of all, she took special pride in learning how to drive. It meant that she didn't rely on anyone but herself to get things done. But it was that, her driving, that ultimately sent her back, all the way back, to the beginning.

For a speeding ticket, she wound up in the back of a car, handcuffed, with two ICE officers driving her to Pennsylvania, where she would be placed in proceedings for deportation. What Dolores didn't know, as she sat there, was that videos of her arrest circulated throughout the community, fast. People started making phone calls, lots of them. And then a call came in.

- “Someone wants to talk to you,” said one of the officers as he handed the phone.
- “They're going to release you!”, said a female voice on the other end.

It was Carly Fox, from the Justice Workers Center. “When I heard that, everything started to sink in. I started crying, I cried uncontrollably,” Dolores remembered. When Carly picked her up, Dolores was still crying. “It was something like a miracle. Out of all the things that could've happened, this was a miracle,” she said.

She was afforded prosecutorial discretion and received an order to show in court. She has done so, twice a year, since 2014. She also receives a monthly call from her deportation officer to verify her phone and address.

But Dolores faced most of this process on her own. Her immigration judge gave her a list of pro-bono lawyers, but none responded to her calls and messages.

By her third presentation in court, she had found a lawyer willing to represent her for “half the price.” Dolores payed him $2,800 but the lawyer soon dropped her case arguing that there were language barriers that prevented her collaboration in her case. Her lawyer did not speak Spanish at all and told Dolores that it was her responsibility to find a translator.

In the meantime, Donald Trump was elected president.

Since the new administration took office, the Latino community has been on edge. Rumors and facts blend together, making it so that Dolores and her daughter have had to cut back on everyday activities, fearing deportation. Dolores is scared of driving to the movies on the weekend and now she uses roads that have less police presence.

“Get ready to pack your bags and return to Mexico. Don't worry, we’ll visit you there,” some kids told Dolores’ daughter at school. “We are not safe here and our children suffer the most. They're scared, everyday they're scared,” Dolores said of her daughter. Both put a lot of effort in hoping for the best.

Dolores’ time was running out. Her final hearing in immigration court arrived and the judge’s mind was set: in his eyes, she had no case for an asylum petition. She was set to be deported.

Dolores sat with her daughter, now 17, and finally faced a conversation both had avoided for years:

- Maybe I’ll stay with you, but maybe I wont. It has been you and me alone for a long time. Don't let this stop you from following your dreams, to the contrary. Let this make you stronger so that you achieve everything that you want to. Work hard, I know you can do this —said Dolores
- Yes, I promise, her daughter answered

***

“I accepted her case one week before her deportation. She was going to get deported that day,” said Jose Pérez, an attorney based in Syracuse, who took Dolores case pro-bono. Several organizations, including Dolores' church, begged him to take the case. “I could barely handle it. I have 20 ongoing pro-bono cases,” said Pérez, who is swamped by deportation cases. According to him, deportation proceedings have accelerated a lot in the moths after Trump’s election.

On March 15, 2017, Dolores stood in the middle of a blizzard, with her eyebrows frozen. She was with a group of activist, supporters, friends, and her lawyer, in front of Buffalo’s Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, where her final deportation hearing would take place. “It felt like a death sentence. I was ready to be deported,” she said that day.

“In the previous administration, we would've already closed this case. That is not the situation with the new administration,” said Perez, referring to Obama’s deportation priorities, which focused mainly on criminals and convicted felons. “I closed 200 cases last year, because we had the chance to negotiate with the prosecution based on the deportation priorities. I requested to close this case almost as soon as I got it, but the prosecution told me that there was no chance of that happening as things are laid out now,” he said.

In the previous administration, Dolores would have been at the bottom of the deportation priorities, with a clean record, no re-entries, no deportation order and over a decade of hard work in U.S. farms.

Perez asked the judge for an extension in order to study and understand Dolores’ case. The lawyers are introducing two waivers, including political asylum based on domestic violence.

“If I get sent back, I know the father of my children will not stay away,” Dolores said about going back. They still have three children in common, two of whom still live in the small town that she escaped from fourteen years ago.

 “…Once you get here, you realize that reality is different from your dreams. Reality is very different, especially when you come here as a single mother,” Dolores said about her hopes and dreams of 14 years ago. She forgot about the house, about the money, and all the things she was told about the U.S. when she was younger. Now, all her bets are on seeing her daughter graduate next year. Her case will be decided on May 17. And even though the decision can be appealed, her chances narrow as the Trump Administrations deportation efforts accelerate.

As a member of the Workers' Center she participated in a campaign that led to an executive memo prohibiting troopers from asking citizenship status during routine contacts. Which she cherishes as a small victory for herself and other immigrant workers. Now the battle is for herself.

"I just hope I can get a bit of time with my daughter, to be by her side. At least until she's old enough to take care of herself. I'd like to see her graduate from high school,” Dolores said. “We have been through so much, just to get here."

***