By Balim Tezel, Medill, Immigrant Connect
Rosa Contreras made one of the hardest decisions of her life 12 years ago after realizing that the decision might be the only way to give her kids the life they deserve.
The Ecuadorian mother said goodbye to her kids. She didn’t know how to make her kids feel safe despite an uncertain future. So, she told them they would see each other soon. She promised that everything would be okay.
But it wasn’t until last year that she hugged her kids again.
Contreras chose to pay a high cost, living 2,949 miles away from her family in Ecuador to take care of others’ families. America has always been considered the land of immigrants, where millions of people around the world seek a new start. More than half of the nation’s 43 million immigrants are women, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Contreras came to the United States, fleeing an abusive husband and a life of poverty, she says, to support her family back home. She didn’t want to leave behind her kids or life in Ecuador but had no choice. The jobs offered in Ecuador did not pay enough and her income would not be enough to pay for the education of her kids.
“I was too scared to bring my kids with me,” Contreras says. “I couldn’t take the risk of them getting caught.”
The best solution Contreras could find to be able to afford a better life for her kids was to migrate. Almost as many Ecuadorans immigrate to the United States as to Spain. Contreras chose the U.S.“I make way more money here than I would be able to make in Ecuador,” said Contreras, translated from Spanish. “But since the day I left, I can’t stop worrying about my kids. It’s dangerous to live there because of all the drug cartels.”
Her son Stewart, then 15 years old, and her daughter Carla, then only nine, are now grownups, who have their own jobs and families. Their grandparents raised them. But because of Contreras’ sacrifice, they were able to put food in their mouths, clothes on their backs, and get a college degree.
“I entered the United States 12 years ago without a visa,” Contreras says. “I started working as a nanny for a family in Miami first, before moving to New York.”
Contreras is one of about two million in-home workers. They are 90 percent female and one-third are immigrants, according to a survey by the Economic Policy Institute, which also concluded that most are not covered under labor laws; cannot form a union, do not qualify for required overtime pay or medical leave, and are customarily paid “under the table.”
After a couple of months, Contreras met Linda Schaf, mother of four, at a kid’s birthday party.
“I was looking after the kids in the party,” she says. “She came up to me and asked if I would consider working for her family.” Once Contreras realized she would be making more money working for the Schaf family, she moved to New York.
“She has been with us since I could remember,” says Courtney Schaf, now 20 years old. “She is so funny and amazing. We love her.” Contreras’ job is to take care of the Schafs kids – one boy and three girls, and keep the house clean.
“I became really close with the kids. They were at the similar ages with my own,” Contreras says. “I would talk to my kids through FaceTime, but was not able to hug them or give them kisses. So, I would kiss Courtney or Halle instead.” “That’s why Rosa loves me and my siblings as her own,” says Courtney Schaf. “She is like a second mother to us.”
Like many other undocumented immigrants, Contreras had no option to travel back to her hometown for a visit. “It is hard to cross the border illegally into the United States,” she says. U.S. laws make it nearly impossible for undocumented immigrants to visit their families back home. Moreover, most of the time immigrants like Contreras do not have enough money to pay for their travel expenses. Thus, the family’s separation lasted twelve years. Her kids had been trying to get a U.S. visa for the last six years. After being denied twice, they received their visas last year.
“I guess the officers thought they would be immigrants too,” says Contreras of the reasons her children were not granted even visitors’ visas. “But their lives are in Ecuador.”
Last year, Carla visited her mom in New York for the first time. Ashley Schaf says that when Rosa saw Carla for the first time, they were speechless and didn’t know what to do or how to react.
“We met Carla when she stayed in our house,” says Ashley Schaf. “Growing up, we would give our old clothes to Rosa and she would send them back home for her kids and when she came to visit she was wearing our clothes.”
“It was really emotional,” Courtney Schaf recalls. “It made me really happy to see that we were able to help Rosa and her family.”
When Carla visited, the Schaf family told Contreras that she could pick a room in the house to stay in with her daughter. But Contreras chose to stay in her comparatively smaller room and sleep in a twin bed with her daughter.
“It was kind of weird because I didn’t want her to prepare us food, when she was there,” Schaf says. “But she and her daughter would literally not stop cleaning and organizing. I think it was because they didn’t know how to spend time with each other.”
Contreras has wanted to be free to go home since she stepped foot in the US. But after seeing her daughter, she was even more eager to go back and spend time with her family.
“Seeing my daughter after twelve years was different,” she says. “I did not want to miss out anymore.”
Contreras’s life has changed. She is now married, and her marriage to an American citizen may allow her to obtain a green card, which would make her a lawful permanent resident and able to travel outside the U.S. and return. There are many conditions that could keep that from happening.
Although Contreras is desperate to make up for the lost time with her children, she says that her sacrifices don’t matter because her kids got a better life than they would have had.
“I realize that if it was necessary again, I would do everything all over,” Contreras says. After many years full of guilt and longing, Contreras is now waiting to receive her green card.
“I don’t want to miss out anymore,” she says. “I want to be back in Ecuador eventually, like really soon.”