Separated by ICE, KC's Blue Line owner and family stay connected through technology
For as long as her daughter Jennifer can remember, Leticia Stegall has recited nightly prayers with her in Spanish, often at the girl's bedside.
They still do so before Jennifer Uscanga, 17, goes to sleep. But Mom is not there, except on the screen of Jennifer's phone.
In late February, Stegall of Kansas City was detained by immigration agents on her way to the gym. By week's end, they had whisked the successful sports bar manager to her native Mexico. Having entered the U.S. illegally 20 years ago, she wasn't able to kiss goodbye her husband of six years nor Jennifer, both Americans.
Still, Stegall says, "I consider myself lucky." Her family has the resources to afford web access, smartphones, laptops and other gadgets that keep them close.
From a laptop mailed to her in Mexico, "Letty" Stegall, 40, even continues to manage The Blue Line restaurant in the River Market.
She monitors the establishment through 17 cameras mounted inside and out. When a table hasn't been cleared in a while, Stegall will text a waitress.
Husband Steve Stegall owns the popular hockey-themed bar. And late at night, when business dies down, Letty and Steve curl up, virtually, at the Northland home they had shared. They use their phones to link up on FaceTime.
Each will then switch on their TV sets and talk through an episode of "Narcos," their favorite series on Netflix.
Steve watches from the right side of the bed; Letty used to occupy the left side.
Her physical absence is "obvious, for sure," he says. "I can't hug her. I can't kiss her. We don't have physical contact.
"You kiss the phone. That's as close as you get."
Yet they can still laugh together and share thoughts watching TV at night.
"Technology is awesome," Letty said through Steve's phone one night last week.
The technology isn't so accessible to most families with undocumented loved ones arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That's according to Diana Yael Martinez of Advocates for Immigration Rights and Reconciliation, a local group serving separated families or those at risk.
"Most of these families don't have smartphones. And most (deportees) don't have internet access," especially those who locate to remote locations in poorer countries, Martinez said. "A lot of them wind up finding a place with friends they met while detained."
For those who acquire cellphones after being deported, high international calling rates make it unfeasible to place everyday calls to relatives back in the States.
Letty benefits by having the same smartphone she owned in Kansas City, with its 816 area code and unlimited calling plan.
"I don't have a strong signal," she said from her sister's home in Veracruz. "But I have a signal."
'Our best hope'
ICE began the lengthy process to remove Letty Stegall after she was arrested seven years ago for driving while intoxicated.
By that time, she already had been working 13 years at area restaurants, starting with busing tables on the Country Club Plaza. She had worked her way to being general manager of Hickok's Bar & Grill, where she put others to work.
But because she had entered the country without papers — no tourist or work visa, no family to sponsor her — chances of Letty ever becoming legal were slim.
To attain citizenship, or even a green card, most immigrants who arrive illegally must return to their home countries for 10 years before applying to re-enter the United States.
Letty chose to stay rather than raise her U.S.-born daughter in Mexico.
While managing Hickok's, she met Steve, owner of the hockey bar across the road. They came to learn that marrying an American doesn't automatically make an illegal resident legal.
That's especially true for immigrants who had no permission to be here in the first place. In such cases, undocumented spouses typically must return to their native countries for at least two years. And hope to gain entry back.
The Stegalls tried to convince an immigration court to make an exception for them, without luck.
ICE detained Letty as part of a four-day enforcement sweep in the Kansas City area targeting undocumented residents with prior scrapes with the law, ICE said. The agency put her on a plane even after the Stegalls won a federal court order that she stay in the Platte County Jail pending a hearing.
They're now pursuing that provision of the law allowing some deported spouses to return to their U.S. families after two years away.
"Our best hope," Steve said.
It's the normal process for couples in the Stegalls' predicament, said their attorney, Rekha Sharma-Crawford, who is confident Letty will be back.
"Things have slowed some under this administration," Sharma-Crawford said, "but (two years) is still a good guesstimate."
Keeping up her success
That the Stegalls, while separated, can enjoy cellular connections is largely owed to their success in running The Blue Line.
The establishment overflowed during recent broadcasts of the NHL Stanley Cup finals.
Before Game 4, Letty texted Steve: "What time are you going to be at the bar honey."
Steve texted back: "On way baby cake."
"Honey," she corrected him.
Servers that night squeezed between roaring hockey fans to deliver beers and plates of tacos.
And from 1,730 miles away, manager Letty Stegall dished out instructions.
Her laptop screen was a checkerboard of restaurant images in real time.
She texted to head waitress Morgan Humphrey: "Please move Table 9 more to the center so people can watch the tv when they seat."
Humphrey values the manager's watchful eye, which sometimes spots things that workers don't. One day Letty noticed that a wastebasket under the bar was missing a magnetic lid known as a silverware trap, which catches utensils from sliding through a slot into the waste. In a minute, the lid was back on.
"We ran a successful restaurant, and I'm going to keep it that way," Letty says. "Those customers are part of my family."
Letty often will text employees to tell familiar patrons that she sees them from Mexico. Turn and wave to the camera, she'll say.
Soon snapshots of them waving to the camera will appear on their phones with the caption: "How do you like it?"
"We all miss Letty," Humphrey said. "But she still keeps tabs on everything. It's great."
Before 7 a.m. during the school year, she would phone Jennifer to make sure she's out of bed. Around 4 p.m., one or the other would call to discuss how the day went, what's for dinner and whether the family dogs have been walked.
The calls are not always happy.
A month into Letty's deportation, she told her daughter she "couldn't stand it," Jennifer said. "It was, 'I miss you, I miss you, I miss you.' We had a breakdown together."
This past week, Jennifer left for Mexico to spend a month with her mom.
Between husband and wife, the nights watching "Narcos" offer cozy respite from hard work under painful personal circumstances.
When they shared the bed, Letty would end the evening turning away from a sleepy Steve, who isn't Catholic, to whisper several Catholic prayers in Spanish.
Over the phone, she still does that in her own bed, imagining Steve at her back.