Oralba Ramirez hovers over the gas stove, preparing a small feast of homemade tortillas, chicken vegetable soup and Mexican rice while her toddlers pepper her with questions.
She works away as the smell of burning oil filters through the tiny house with cracked walls and mismatched furniture. About a dozen Mexican laborers would arrive in a few hours and pay what they could for the meal, filling their own bellies and providing sustenance for Ramirez's family.
Ramirez is 28, a widowed mother of three. Her children are U.S. citizens, but she is here illegally. America provides a better life for her family, but she lives in fear of being caught. Mexico is home, but it is also teeming with the kind of violence that cost her husband his life. His body was dumped in March on the side of the road, riddled with bullets, his bloody shirt wrapped around his head.
Ramirez doesn't know her next move.
She stirs the soup, then places the tortillas in a container to keep them warm.
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For those slipping into America with the hope of a better life, the journey involves danger and sacrifice. Ramirez paid $2,500 to a coyote (one who smuggles immigrants into the United States) to take her across the 261-mile-long stretch of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. It's one of North America's largest and hottest deserts. It's considered the deadliest point of entry to the United States.
Her brothers were already in Florida. They convinced her that the money was good and life would be better.
She survived the crossing in 2005 and eventually made it to Dade City, initially working in a plant nursery. She expected to work hard, save her money and someday become documented.
She didn't expect to fall in love.
The day she arrived in Florida, she met Ruben Dario Ramirez, another undocumented worker who worked at a meat processing plant near Bushnell where beef is chopped up and prepared for butchers. She later got a job there, too.
Though he courted her from the start, she didn't give him the time of day — until she fell ill and he planted himself by her hospital bedside for three days.
"My brothers didn't even visit, but he was there every day," she said. "I finally accepted to be his girlfriend, and eight months later we were married."
Rafael Colon, a retired Seventh-day Adventist Church pastor who conducted their ceremony on Feb. 5, 2006, said he remembers the couple beaming with happiness.
"They are very humble people who came here to struggle for life," said Colon, 78. "But nothing ever stopped them from being very active in church. They both worked very hard and still found time to participate in biblical classes, and they also practiced special numbers to sing at Mass."
By the time Ruben Jr. was born in 2007, work in Florida had slowed down drastically. The Ramirez family moved to Houston, where the elder Ruben had relatives. He found work installing sprinklers.
The Ramirezes had two more children — Leslie in 2008 and Darlen in 2010 — but by then, work had slowed again.
Ruben Sr. and a few other workers hit the road for a plumbing job in Maryland. But they were stopped at an immigration checkpoint in Louisiana and deported to Mexico.
"He called and said, 'I have bad news, I fell right into immigration hands,' " Oralba Ramirez recalled. "My whole world collapsed. I already knew this was the beginning of an endless nightmare."
After Ruben Sr. made three failed attempts to return to the United States, he and his wife agreed they should all reunite in Mexico.
But first, he would establish a place to live and take classes to become a bus driver in Cardenas, a city of a quarter-million people in the southern tip of Mexico. Oralba Ramirez brought the kids back to Florida, where Ruben Jr. received therapy for his speech impediment.
Then came the call March 13 from her husband's family. They told her Ruben Sr., who was 28, had been brutally murdered. An article in the Mexican newspaper Tabasco Hoy said he was shot five times and left on the side of the road with his bloody shirt wrapped around his head.
In his pocket was the paperwork for the public transportation driving course he'd been taking at a local university.
His murder remains unsolved. His children are still too young to understand.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do," Oralba Ramirez said, her eyes welling with tears. "Telling them their 'papi' died."
• • •
Staying in America means a better opportunity to make a living, Ramirez said. It means access to the therapies that are helping her son, a safer life away from the Mexican violence for her kids along with better education for all three of them.
But it also means looking over her shoulder, worrying that a wrong turn could find her in the hands of immigration officials.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security apprehended 517,000 foreign nationals, including Ruben Sr. About 83 percent were from Mexico, and more than half were sent back to that country.
Being the mother of three young U.S. citizens isn't enough to keep her in the country if Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents come knocking. And she hasn't been here long enough — 10 years — to argue to a judge that she should be allowed to stay.
"ICE doesn't care. They're going to enforce the law," said Mark Weiner, a board certified specialist in immigration law. "It's like a machine that keeps rolling over and one day the machine's going to swallow her up."
But a young mother with no criminal record is a low priority for immigration enforcement officials, said Tampa immigration attorney Richard Maney.
"Something has to happen for a woman like this who's not a criminal" to appear on ICE's radar, he said.
Sometimes Ramirez thinks the easy way out would be to take the children back to Mexico like she and her husband had planned. But then she thinks about how difficult it would be to make a living with the low wages in Mexico on top of the violence in that country.
She feels she's better off here, living in the shadows.
"Only God can help me figure out what is next," Ramirez said. "I just know I have to raise my kids, give them as much as I can, because that's what my husband would have wanted."
Staff writer Molly Moorhead contributed to this report. Jacqueline Baylon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 869-6247.