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'I hope God helps us'

For Barthila Solano, future after New Bedford raid is precarious

Barthila Solano (shown with her baby) and her husband were separated in the recent New Bedford immigration raid.
Barthila Solano (shown with her baby) and her husband were separated in the recent New Bedford immigration raid. (Globe Staff Photo / Joanne Rathe)

NEW BEDFORD -- Barthila Solano is sitting on a blanket on her living room floor, playing with her 7-month-old daughter, Ivania , when her phone rings. A man who says he's an acquaintance of her husband's is calling from Connecticut, saying he'll lend her money to hire an immigration lawyer to help win her husband's release from a detention center in Texas.

"I told him I don't know," she says in Spanish after she hangs up. "I owe so much."

Minutes later the phone rings again. It's the same man , still urging her to let him help. Solano weeps while she talks. "But it costs so much," she says. "The bills are getting higher and higher."

Barthila Solano and Valencio Salas, natives of Ecuador, former employees of the Michael Bianco leather goods factory, are two of the 327 undocumented immigrants swooped up in last week's raid of the plant. Just two days earlier they had determined that if she returned to working a double shift they could cover their living expenses, continue sending $100 a week back home for their four other children , and in three years pay off the $22,000 they still owe the people who fronted the fees to sneak them into the United States.

The last time Solano and Salas saw each other was the morning of March 6, in the brick factory a quarter mile from their apartment. She was shivering, crying, murmuring, "Oh, my God, oh, my God." She saw her husband walk by in shackles. It was his first day back after a week sick at home, treating himself with home remedies. He said, "What are we going to do with the baby?" Then an immigration officer handcuffed her, too.

Solano is tiny, 100 pounds and not even 5 feet tall. She is 42 but could pass for older, and, she recalls, she had trouble convincing federal agents she has a baby. Eventually they believed her, and Wednesday morning she was home with Ivania, who'd spent the night with the woman who cared for her for $70 a week. Solano's husband was flown to Texas.

"Now what's going to happen?" Solano says through an interpreter. "If I go back without money I'm lost. The people we owe money to will attack us."

'We work so hard'
Debt. That's why the couple left Ecuador.

"We wanted to be able to pay our bills, get some money to buy a house, and go back," Solano says.

She and her husband and their four children, now between 8 and 18, lived in a tiny adobe house and raised chickens and onions and tomatoes on a sliver of rented land. A day's work there brings $5, and food, Solano says, costs as much as it does here. One daughter needed treatment for epilepsy and other ailments. So, with medical and other bills mounting and no way to pay them , Salas in 2002 borrowed $11,000 to hire a smuggler to bring him to the United States.

"He used to send me money for the children. He said, 'I can't send you more money because I have to pay the rent,' " Solano says. "I said, 'But we have so many bills here. I can't pay.' For two years I considered whether I should come, but I didn't know whether to make another bill to get my passage."

On Feb. 15, 2005, Solano left her children with her sister and departed Ecuador to help her husband. Her fee was $14,000.

"They said as long as I was working I would be OK. They told me I would get over $500 a week," she says. "They said if you work construction you get $30 an hour. In construction my husband was getting $30 a week for himself. The rest was to pay off debt."

Evenings in Ecuador, Solano had sewed, and at Michael Bianco she wrestled thick plastic belts through her sewing machine. "The heaviest work that was there I did because I didn't have paperwork," Solano says. "We had to work on the machines no one wanted to use."

Her husband, meanwhile, had worked on fishing boats and in construction but was idle during the winter. So Solano pulled a double shift, from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. She dropped a shift when she was three months pregnant. Six weeks after Ivania was born by Caesarean section, Solano returned to work.

Now Ivania, sometimes in her mother's lap, sometimes beside her, plays with a soft, pinless pin cushion while Solano, fidgeting with a rattle, still crying, tells her story. When the infant fusses, Solano puts her into a baby swing. To the tune of "Frere Jacques , " Ivania coos while Solano dabs her own tears with a pink baby shirt.

Eight months before federal agents raided the plant, Solano's husband got a job there. Solano had been pleading with her boss to hire him. "I begged and begged," Solano says. "Finally the woman said, 'OK, come to work Monday.' "

They each worked 48 hours a week, Solano for $353 a week and Solas, who is 45, for $348. They paid $800 a month rent and another $400 for utilities. That improved on March 1, when they found housing for $500 a month plus utilities. They could walk to work, which saved them the $12 a week they'd been paying for a ride.

"I don't understand what harm we're doing," Solano says. "We work so hard."

A blistering journey
Solano's journey from Ecuador to New Bedford took 100 days. She traveled by boat to Guatemala, by bus to Mexico , and by foot through the desert. "I was warned if anyone catches me say I'm from Mexico," she says, "so they'd send me there and it would be easier to come back."

She was caught. She tried a different route, walking all day and all night. "My feet were so full of blisters I couldn't walk. They bled. Two men had to carry me," she says. "I ended up crying and crying. I was so ashamed. The money I had saved for food to eat along the way I had to use to buy shoes." Again they were caught and returned to Mexico.

"I called my husband," Solano recalls. "I said, 'I don't know if I have the strength.' He said, 'But now we owe [another] $14,000. We'll be in a worse situation.' "

On her third try, Solano succeeded.

Now chances are she and her husband must leave.

"With most of these people the scenario is the same. It's relatively bleak," says Ondine Sniffin , an immigration lawyer with Catholic Social Services who's coordinating efforts to find free legal aid for people caught in the raid. "They don't have any relief unless they can establish fear of returning due to fear of persecution."

On Sunday, one week after the couple determined they needed three years to retire their debts, Solano and her baby were among hundreds of people crowding the basement of St. James Church, listening to politicians and picking up donations of food and clothing. A woman pressed a supermarket gift card into Solano's hand. Until now, the family had not used food pantries or public assistance.

"Now I have no money," Solano says. "I hope God helps us."

Meanwhile, little Ivania, born in New Bedford, is free to remain here. "The fact that there is this US citizen child is not even a consideration for the parents to stay," Sniffin says. "It's basically disregarded."

If she and her husband are deported, Solano says, the baby will go with them.

"I know a lot of people come to this country and nothing happens to them. That's why I decided to come," she says. "If I knew all the consequences, I would be better [off] in my country."

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