Luis Blanco spends his nights alone, crying silently. He misses his family.
Blanco thinks often about what he could do to earn more money. He wants to help his wife, Laura Medrano, 38, and their seven children move into a bigger home.
“If I could be with them, I think many things would be different."
Nearly three years ago, Blanco was ripped from the relatively comfortable life the family had known in Plant City and deported to Mexico — a country he first left more than 20 years earlier. His family, the children all U.S.-born citizens, still lives here.
Now 44, Blanco stays with his father in the southeastern state of Veracruz and works in the fields and orchards nearby, struggling to earn about $130 a month. He talks with his family every day via Facebook.
He holds out hope of returning to the United States legally, saying he won’t sneak across the border again as he did in 2000. But that path is difficult to envision. President Donald Trump aims to reduce the number of immigrants, toughening an accelerated approach to deportations that began under the Obama administration.
Blanco had lived in the shadows until 2014, when he came to the attention of immigration authorities following a traffic stop. Still, as the family breadwinner, he was granted a humanitarian stay of deportation year after year until his petition was suddenly denied during a hearing in December 2017.
He made headlines the following month when he reported to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Tampa as supporters, including his family and the Council on American–Islamic Relations, turned out to oppose his deportation. Soon after, he was placed on a charter plane with dozens of other immigrants and flown to Mexico.
In a statement at the time, the federal agency defended its action, saying, in part, "All of those in violation of U.S. immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention, and removal. "
Before Blanco was sent away, he had a steady construction job that paid $1,500 a month, enabling the family to make the rent of $650 on a mobile home in Plant City. His eldest daughter, Sonia, had finished classes at Hillsborough County College and was registering for the Art Institute of Tampa. His wife was pregnant with their seventh child, Rey, born after Blanco left.
“We lived modestly, but we were getting on,” Blanco said in Spanish during a recent Facebook call with the Tampa Bay Times.
He liked waking up at 5 a.m. and showing up first on the job site. He enjoyed cooking for his family each weekend. He sent $100 a month to his father in Veracruz.
“I was happy, we were all happy.”
Blanco first entered the United States illegally in 1996. He said he left Mexico to escape violence, poverty and corruption. Two years later, he was detained in Florida by immigration agents. A judge ordered him deported.
In early 2000, he risked a return. He met Medrano, also from Mexico, and they started a family. Blanco remained off authorities' radar until 2014, when he was stopped in South Carolina for having tinted windows. Police informed ICE.
Blanco was released under court-ordered supervision and obtained his first humanitarian stay under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1996. It allowed him to continue working, legally.
It isn’t clear why his stay was suddenly lifted. The Trump administration hasn’t changed the criteria for reviewing humanitarian waivers, said immigration attorney Paul Palacios. Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens — Blanco is father to seven of them — even qualify for permanent resident status.
Contacted this week, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Tampa said it couldn’t comment on Blanco’s case because of privacy restrictions.
Helping immigrants like Blanco will require new laws, said Wilfredo Ruiz, a spokesman in Florida with the Council on American–Islamic Relations.
“I have seen how families with parents and with honest jobs have been separated and discriminated against," Ruiz said. “For me, it is inconceivable. We need legislation that addresses and resolves this issue.”
Now, separated from his family by 2,000 miles, Blanco finds life lonely and hard. He lives in the small town of La Florida and works seven days a week harvesting tobacco, vegetables and fruits. Drug traffickers roam the area, collecting payments that enable laborers to work.
"There is violence and fear. People prefer not to talk about it and act as if nothing happened.”
Blanco can’t imagine his family there, even if it meant being together.
He revels in his memories of life back in Plant City.
“I know that it is difficult to return to the United States. It’s not an option for me now."
This time, Blanco said, he has incentive to find a legal way back.
“I don’t want my children to visit me in jail. Here I am poor, but I am free.”
The house where he stays with his father, 76-year-old Evaristo Blanco-Montero, has a bedroom and a half, a small kitchen and a bathroom.
“Here, life is quite simple. I only have a bed and a small fan. For now, that is all I need.”
Blanco usually calls his wife and children three times a day via Facebook. They exchange photos, record videos and send messages embedded with little hearts. This is how Blanco was able to meet his youngest son, Rey, now 2, and laugh with 4-year-old Luis.
“They love each other a lot,” Medrano said. "And Rey learned to call him daddy. It is good to know they are united despite the distance and the pain.”
Life has grown lonely and hard in Plant City, too.
The couple’s oldest daughters had to set aside higher education plans, and they still live in the mobile home. Sonia, 22, sells contact lenses; Jacqueline, 20, had a child a year ago; and Jennifer, 18, works as a cashier at a gas station.
The youngest daughters, Stephanie, 10, and Giselle, 8, had trouble at first focusing on their studies at school.
“Now, they are better,” Blanco said. “God knows what he’s doing. Someday, this will be better. I want to see them studying so they can have a career, a profession.”
Medrano has remained in the U.S. through a program that gives legal residency to immigrants who came here with their parents. The Trump administration wants to eliminate it.
Medrano landed a job a year ago with a food and vegetable distributor, just 15 minutes from home. She works varying hours, six days a week, for $7.50 an hour. She struggles to make ends meet.
“It’s not just the rent," Medrano said. "It is also the payment of water, electricity, food. Little by little, we have to collect the money together.”
She depends on friends and neighbors to drive her to or from work. The family’s car broke down months ago and fixing it would cost $1,400.
“There is no money for that. But I don’t want to get rid of that car, because we bought it with my husband. It is part of us."
Medrano hopes to send her two youngest children to visit their father in Mexico someday.
“My husband was the pillar of this family. Without his presence, and his company, life is full of pain.”