Karen and LaMar Roberts have five children and celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary in February. For the past 18 months their lives have been turned upside down because of a mistake.
For two Thanksgivings now, Karen Serrano Roberts has been missing from her family’s dinner table in Yeadon.
It’s beginning to look like this will be a second Christmas away from home, too.
Karen Roberts, a Mexican national who has lived in the United States for most of her life, has been stranded in Mexico for the last 18 months, separated from her U.S. born husband and five children due to her immigration status.
Born in Puebla, Mexico, in 1991, Roberts, 31, was brought to the States when she was 4 without legal documents, she said. For part of that trip, she said, “I was in the airplane with strangers. I was traveling with a white couple.”
They took her by plane from Mexico City to Tijuana, and then by car to San Diego. He father, already in Los Angeles, picked her up. Her mother immigrated later.
After her mother arrived, the family lived in Los Angeles for a few months before her parents separated. Karen and her mother then moved to the Bronx before ultimately moving to the Philadelphia area.
After having grown up here, marrying LaMar Roberts, and raising a family of five children together, Karen wanted to obtain legal residence status.
Especially after they moved into the duplex in Yeadon that LaMar has been renovating, bit by bit.
“I wanted to do a little more for us,” Karen said in a telephone interview from Mexico. “I wanted to grow a little more. I wanted to get a driver’s license and get a license for my business and make it legal. Just all those things you can’t get when you’re an immigrant.”
She traveled to Mexico on July 26, 2021. The plan was to have an interview and apply for a green card at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez — a monumental mistake, according to most advocates who advise those seeking to regularize their immigration status to stay in the U.S.
However, because she had not first applied for and received an I-601 A waiver for having been in the United States without documentation most of her life, she was barred from returning home to her family and life in Yeadon.
Without the waiver, the law calls for her to wait 10 years before being able to return, said her new immigration lawyer, Thomas Griffin.
“It was supposed to be a four-day trip,” LaMar Roberts said. “That four-day trip turned into almost two years she’s been stuck in Mexico.
Since arriving in Mexico, Karen Roberts has been mostly alone and isolated in a country where she knows few people.
And although she has a strong faith in God, there was a time when she considered suicide.
“My faith is so big, I know God is getting ready to do something big for us,” she said. “I’m staying cheerful and hopeful. It’s just my faith. I’m so strong in the Lord. I’m just so grateful that I’m still breathing and the kids are OK.”
For the first two months, she stayed at her grandmother’s house in Puebla. However, because other family members who didn’t get along with her were also living there, she moved to various towns closer to the U.S. consulate.
“I’m living a nightmare. I can’t sleep at night. I can’t function.”
Her husband, a home improvement contractor, has been finding her Airbnb spaces and hotel rooms in tourist areas to keep her safe.
“It’s been a month here, two months at another place,” Karen said.
LaMar has been able to visit her in Mexico a few times after finally getting a passport. He went down in February to celebrate both her birthday and their 10th wedding anniversary.
The children have also visited. But first, LaMar had to scramble to get passports for them, which was difficult because he had to send the necessary paperwork to Karen in Mexico to get her signature as well.
The children spent the summer of 2022 with her, from May to September. They also made a four-day weekend visit the day after Thanksgiving.
Karen said she is hoping and praying they can come again on their Christmas break from school.
Karen Serrano was only 18 when she met LaMar Roberts then 26, while she was working in a convenience store in Upper Darby.
There was something about him she liked immediately, she said.
She laughed, and said it might sound silly to most people, but she saw a light around him that day.
“This light was shining upon him. The light was super bright. It felt like angels were coming down around him.”
LaMar, now 39, was born in Philadelphia. He said when he first saw Karen, he thought she was too beautiful to approach.
Although he flirted a bit, he didn’t ask for her number. He froze. “It was a little intimidating,” he said.
“My goal is to get Karen Roberts back home to her husband and five children safely and as quickly as possible.”
They would meet again a few weeks later near a trolley stop when she was on her way to work. He finally found the nerve to ask her out.
The two were married on Feb. 18, 2012 By then, she was 22 and he was 30.
Each of them had one child before they became a couple.
She had a daughter, Dulce Serrano, now 16; he had a son, Lamar Jr., now 15. They then had three more children together: Nathan, 12, Jade, 9 and Essence, 6.
LaMar said he and the children have struggled emotionally without Karen. The younger children have had nightmares and have had a hard time concentrating in school.
“I sometimes feel like I’m losing my mind,” LaMar said. “I’m living a nightmare. I can’t sleep at night. I can’t function.”
LaMar Roberts said he needs to work as much as he can to make enough money to pay for the family’s living expenses here, as well as Karen’s temporary housing in Mexico.
“I want to work to make money, but I can’t accept some jobs because I have to pick up my kids from different schools,” he said.
The costs have meant falling into debt. There are calls from bill collectors. And just before Thanksgiving, LaMar said he received a shut-off notice from PECO.
While both of the children’s grandmothers live in the area, his own mother, cares for her elderly mother and can’t help as much as she would like.
“It’s been extremely hard,” said Roselee Roberts, LaMar’s mother. “I know the Lord is giving him strength to have to go from school to school, with five kids in three different schools.”
“My mother is 100 years old and bedridden. I want to come and sit with the kids. There’s so much I would like to do. But I’m limited. When I get some change, I send it to him.”
Karen’s mother, who remarried after divorcing her father, has three children of her own, two teenage boys and an 11-year-old daughter, whom Dulce, a high school junior, calls “my little aunt.”
LaMar has set up a Go Fund Me page, “Help Bring My Wife Home,” to help finance living expenses for his family here and expenses for his wife in Mexico.
Although Karen Roberts wasn’t home on Thanksgiving, she asked her husband and her mother to “make Thanksgiving special” for her children.
”I told my mom, if she could be with them and cook, because my kitchen looks beautiful and brand new. I encouraged her to go and cook and have a celebration with them. “
Her mother was there on Thanksgiving Day, and made a dinner of turkey and rice.
But Dulce said she and her siblings were excited about something other than the Thanksgiving meal. The children had found out only a few weeks earlier that they were going to visit their mother for a long holiday weekend, from the Friday after Thanksgiving to the following Tuesday. “We are more so excited to see our mom,” Dulce said.
Dulce said the separation from their mother has made her grow up fast.
“From this, I’ve learned to be patient, and with the patience, I’ve learned faith,” said Dulce, a student at Upper Darby High School.
“From this, I’ve learned to be patient, and with the patience, I’ve learned faith.”
“Last year I didn’t have that. I completely lost hope. I was upset. I thought I lost myself and who I am, just me being me. Everything I knew about myself … was being with my mom.”
She said she and her siblings have talked to school counselors about their mother being separated from them, and the counselors have been helpful.
Sometimes Dulce feels strong, but other days she’s on the phone crying with her mother.
On the day before Thanksgiving, she talked with her mother via FaceTime, several hours before the family would attend a Thanksgiving Eve service at their church.
“I was crying for hours, way before the church service. We FaceTimed each other. We talked things out. The hours went by. We prayed together, and I felt better.”
That night LaMar took the children to church at Bread of Life Assembly of God Church in Upper Darby. Dulce said she looked around and saw all the families gathered. “I felt kind of jealous.”
Dulce said heard one of the men saying he was “so grateful for my beautiful wife.”
“I got sad,” she said, “because that’s what my dad says when he introduces my mom, he always says, ‘This is my beautiful wife.’ ”
Lamar Jr., a high school sophomore, said he normally might have played football after school, but now, he has no interest in extracurricular activities. “I just don’t feel like it,” he said.
Anthony Twyman, a deacon at the Bread of Life, contacted the Inquirer about LaMar and Karen’s story.
He said the church found out about the family’s separation when LaMar, who regularly plays the drums for the church on Sundays, was among the parishioners who asked for a prayer one Sunday.
“My goal is to get Karen Roberts back home to her husband and five children safely and as quickly as possible,” Twyman said. “I believe drawing attention to the Roberts’ plight might help get Karen home.”
Thomas Griffin, Karen Roberts’ attorney, said U.S. immigration law has harsh penalties for people who arrived in the United States illegally.
Things are different when people come to the United States on a student or tourist visa, then fall in love with a U.S. citizen and marry. They can more easily get the necessary waivers for staying in the United States beyond their visa time, because at least they arrived with lawful documentation.
“People who come in the wrong way and depart [the United States] are stuck,” Griffin said. “They are punished for coming in the wrong way.”
“She’s not admissible” even though she was only 4 when she was brought here, Griffin said.
In 1996, he said, immigration laws were changed so that a person who came to the U.S. unlawfully had to wait either three years or 10 years before they could apply to re-enter the U.S. The length of time depends on how long they had been in the States illegally, Griffin said. In Karen’s case, because of the number of years she was in the United States, she could be barred for 10 years.
A change in immigration law in 2013 made it possible for undocumented people living here to apply for the waiver while remaining in the United States. Once they get that waiver approved, then they must travel to their home countries and apply for a green card to enter the U.S. legally, Griffin said.
Griffin said Karen could have applied for the I-601A waiver while remaining home in Yeadon. Instead, she took advice that led her to seek to regularize her status from Mexico.
It was at her interview at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez where officials told her she would not be able to return to her family.
“I felt betrayed,” she said. ”My life was being taken away from me … my whole world was like a big tsunami. There’s a lot of pain, a lot of tears, a lot of chaos.”
Family members have tried contacting their U.S. Congressional representatives, but have had no luck, LaMar said. All Griffin can do now is to continue to request that United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) expedite her waiver request.
“We’ve already been denied once on that. We may be trying again,” he said.
The work produced by the Communities & Engagement desk at The Inquirer is supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project's donors.