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Neal & Paola: A Love Story

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Immigration and Cannabis On Something: Episode 6
Illustration by Iris Gottlieb

Two star-crossed lovers from different countries hit a major roadblock in their plans to spend their lives together after a brief encounter with weed becomes an issue.



Ann Marie Awad: From Colorado Public Radio and PRX, this is On Something.
Paola: Okay. Well my name is Paola. I'm 30 years old and, right now, I'm an engineer. I work in a mining company.
Neal: My name is Neal Barenblat. I'm 32 years old. I do video production and was working my first big video production job for a while, and got a little antsy and quit so that I could go travel, and wanted to go travel around South America, so I did.
Paola: I was traveling with three other friends. We went to Ecuador for holiday vacations.
Neal: In February 2012, I had just crossed from Colombia into Ecuador without ever having planned to do that. I wasn't supposed to and just circumstances happened where I found myself there.
Paola: It was the Amazon jungle. Everything there was green, very beautiful with a lot of animals, very wild. There wasn't like any house or something around, just little village.
Neal: I'm there for a day and, the next day, these four girls come in, and that's where I met Paola.
Paola: I remember that he was in a hammock and he was like chilling, you know, and the guide of our tour told us that he was Neal, and my English there wasn't that good, so I understood Neal.
Neal: I saw these Chilean girls come in and I just like magnetized that way. I gravitated. I was like, "Now, I want to hang out with them," and I think I noticed Paola at first, but I don't think we were immediately talking to each other a lot. It happened because, at the end of the trip, I asked if I could continue traveling with them and they said yes, and that was probably an attempt to just stay close to Paola.
Paola: I remember we learned to surf together in Ecuador. We cooked a lot together. We tried different food.
Neal: The way someone looks at you, the feeling you get behind someone's eyes, and she smiled a lot. I hope she still does. Yeah, her default face is a smile, and that's really nice. When you ask how did you break your communication barrier, I would remember that that had a lot to do with it.
Ann Marie Awad: This is a love story, and you are listening to On Something. I'm Ann Marie Awad. On this podcast, we tell stories about life after legalization, especially those times when marijuana is still very, very illegal for certain people. I swear, I promise you there is a legalization story in here somewhere. Just listen.
Ann Marie Awad: Neal is from the States, and he was visiting Ecuador on this backpacking trip. At the same time, Paola, from Chile, was visiting Ecuador on vacation with her friends, and Paola and Neal are both staying at the same lodge, and there's this immediate spark, but things didn't go too far.
Neal: On that trip, Paola and I had almost kissed, but she was seeing someone, and I knew that, so I stopped it and said, "Hey this isn't a good idea."
Paola: I had a relationship of eight years. It was a long relationship, and suddenly I met a guy from the US. We called them gringos. I met a crazy gringo traveling alone in South America.
Ann Marie Awad: In addition to his video work, Neal also makes music on the side, and during this whole backpacking odyssey through South America, he found something just irresistible about Andean music, which he had never really heard before. Back home in the States, he had this incredible itch to make some Andean inspired music of his own, this music actually.
Neal: It was also like a desperate cry to Paola. It was like listen-to-me kind of thing.
Ann Marie Awad: After a few months of radio silence, Neal sent a whole album of music to Paola.
Paola: I think I cried. I don't remember. I think it was a breaking point of my life. Yes, for sure, that helped to start talking again with Neal and, with that, I decided to end my relationship.
Ann Marie Awad: The two started talking almost every day. Both of them phrased it this funny way, "We just couldn't stop talking," and, soon, they were visiting each other's home countries and traveling together. In 2014, Neal was still living in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Paola came to visit that fall. It was her first time in the US, and she spent Thanksgiving with his family.
Neal: I mean, we had this incredible time. You can attribute that to it being like a honeymoon period, and maybe it was, but we just like… It was just so good. She met my family, and my family loved her. She obviously hadn't done a Thanksgiving, and so it was just fun to make a turkey together.
Paola: But when he came here, my mom didn't like him a lot because my mom is, I don't know, like a typical mom in South America. She's Catholic. She's very structured. She is very traditional, and suddenly I came with a guy from another country, another religion, another culture, another everything, so she wasn't used to people like Neal.
Ann Marie Awad: The following year, Neal decided to move. He had grown up in Memphis, but he was ready for a change. He got a job here in Denver and planned to take this big, long road trip across the country with Paola. They drove across Texas, stopping to visit some of Neal's family.
Paola: We camped in New Mexico and, finally, we arrived to Colorado.
Ann Marie Awad: It was 2015. Neal signed a short-term lease for an apartment near Boulder, and Paola stayed with him to help him get set up. One afternoon, they were out shopping along this big pedestrian mall that has all of these boutiques and restaurants.
Neal: We probably were just walking around one day over in Pearl Street in Boulder, because that's where it was, and said, "Oh, my God, we got… Obviously we got to go in there. Like it's so unusual."
Paola: We saw the marijuana dispensary and we said, "Wow, that's interesting. I'm not used to see these kind of things. Let's get in."
Neal: The only thing I really remember because it's significant to the story is them asking for IDs, and so, obviously, mine was a normal thing, but when we asked, "Oh, Paola has her passport, is that okay?" the answer was, "Absolutely. Yes, let's see her passport," and then they would… whatever they did, take a picture, scan it or something like that.
Paola: After that, we get into the marijuana dispensary, and there were a lot of things there, a lot of books, a lot of information and also a lot of weed, and we saw different kind of marijuana and, I don't know, edibles.
Neal: We were both smiling and looking at different things, I think. I mean, I was still amazed, and she was, too, at the variety of different things you could get. "Look at that. That's ridiculous. Oh, my God, like are they really doing that, too?"
Ann Marie Awad: I totally need to appreciate, too, that this is like 2015 we're talking about. I mean, at this point, dispensaries have only been a thing for about a year, I mean, recreational dispensary.
Neal: Exactly, and so you have to appreciate that as an American citizen, but then take someone from another country who's coming in who may or may not have smoked much weed at all in her life seeing a very professional and clean store with lots of products that offered different types of marijuana in different forms and functions and things like that.
Ann Marie Awad: Do you remember what you ended up getting from the dispensary?
Paola: When we got there?
Ann Marie Awad: Yeah.
Paola: I think it was a bubblegum.
Ann Marie Awad: Okay. Neither of them quite remembers exactly what they bought, but they just remember buying edibles, something sweet.
Neal: Yeah, I think we got a couple of cookies, a couple edibles because that's fun.
Ann Marie Awad: They had a little sample that day, and then they saved the rest for camping later on, car camping, but shortly after they ate the cookies or whatever they were, it started to rain.
Neal: We were like trying to set up as fast as we could before it hit. We knew it would be impossible afterwards because we were… We laughed, and then we started to hear thunder, and then this thunder starts to grow stronger, and then the lightning comes, and Paola and I just look at each other and go, "No. No. No. No. No. No. No," so then the next task was to take it all down as fast as we could before we got super high and put it back in the car, and we were just going to sleep in the car because there was no way we were going to get drenched as much as we were super stoned in the middle of I don't remember where, so we packed everything up and packed everything, I mean, cooked as fast as we could, and then we got in the car and it hit right there, and we laughed at the thunderstorm.
Ann Marie Awad: Nice.
Neal: That's all we did.
Ann Marie Awad: Paola's visit lasted about three months, and things were going great. They were making plans for her to come live in the US. She applied to graduate school to get a master's degree and a student visa that would allow her to stay here for a while, and, around that time, Neal got his dream job at GoPro, the company that makes those video cameras. He moved to California with plans for Paola to come along.
Neal: I started working there, and every day it was more of a dream job than the day before.
Ann Marie Awad: Wow. How soon does she come up to see you in California?
Neal: Only a couple of weeks in.
Paola: I decided to go and see Neal, and that was when everything happened.
Ann Marie Awad: In October of 2015, Paola flew from Chile to California.
Neal: The plan was she was going to fly to LA, and then I bought her a Megabus ticket from LA to San Jose, I think, and then I'd go pick her up after work, and I was telling all my new work buddies all week, "She's coming. There's this girl, and it's been this, and this has been the relationship, and it's so crazy. She's going to come over here even for a week and a half. I can't wait for y'all to meet her," blah, blah, blah. Everyone's like, "Cool. Awesome. It's so cool," so the day she comes, I…umm… It may be a little hard to talk about it.
Paola: Someone told me that I had to make another line, a special line to check my things. Okay.
Ann Marie Awad: Getting off the plane at LAX, Paola ran into a snag at customs.
Ann Marie Awad: Had this ever happened to you before?
Paola: No. First time. First time. I think it's random, I don't know, but they choose some people in order to review them a little bit better. That was when an officer took my phone and checked everything inside of my phone.
Ann Marie Awad: So this customs agent has your phone, and they're looking through it. What is this interaction like? I don't know how I would behave if somebody just took my phone and was searching it.
Paola: I just asked him, "Can you do that?" and he said, "Yes, I have the right to do this," and I said, "Okay." You're in a situation that you cannot do a lot, so… and I wasn't afraid of hiding something. I was relaxed because I knew that I'm not a criminal. I'm not a traffic person. I don't know. I'm just a normal person.
Ann Marie Awad: Right, so he starts going through your phone, and did he start asking you questions?
Paola: He asked me a lot about my last trips to the US, so he was very interested about the pictures of Colorado, Memphis, and all the places that I've been before, and that's how he started to look at the pictures from Colorado, and he discovered the pictures of the marijuana dispensary.
Ann Marie Awad: Paola had pictures on her phone from inside the marijuana dispensary, the one that she and Neal had gone to months before. After that, came lots and lots of questions. When the questions wrapped up, Paola was led to a private room, patted down and then led to another common room with a bunch of other people who were just waiting.
Paola: I remember that I started to talk with a girl from France. Then she told me, "If you're here, you will probably not going to enter to the US." That's when I realized that I was in serious, serious trouble.
Ann Marie Awad: Paola and Neal tried to get out of trouble, plus more on what legalization means exactly for noncitizens after this break.
Neal: I'm getting ready to leave and I get a call, and it's Paola, and she's in tears, and she says, "They're not letting me in. They're sending me home," and I said, "What do you mean? What are you talking about?" and she said, "They're sending me home. They're kicking me out. They're not letting me in ever," and I said, "You're joking. What's going on?"
Ann Marie Awad: Paola had some choices. She could wait for her case to go to trial, which could take days or months. Meanwhile, she would have to sit in detention waiting.
Paola: The other option was to wait five years.
Ann Marie Awad: Accepting a five-year ban would immediately revoke her visa and get her sent back home, and then she could try to reenter the country after the five years was up. Then there was a waiver, which basically forfeits a person's right to enter the country at all. It's, in effect, a lifetime ban, unless you can convince immigration authorities that you should be readmitted. Paola thought maybe she could convince them to let her back in in less than five years.
Paola: That's why I choose the waiver.
Neal: She just starts bursting into tears and she says, "No, you don't understand. I can't come. I'm in Los Angeles, and they're sending me home," and then I realized she's serious, and I go, "What?"
Ann Marie Awad: I mean, at any point, was somebody explaining to you exactly what you've done wrong?
Paola: Yes, I tried marijuana in a place which is not legal for immigrants. That was my mistake.
Neal: All of a sudden, an officer starts talking…
Ann Marie Awad: A customs official got on the phone with Neal.
Neal: … and she says, "For this reason and that reason, Paola has been deemed inadmissible to the United States and is being detained and will be returned to her country," and so I started begging and saying, "No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. What's going on?"
Ann Marie Awad: Okay. I'm going to interject here because you, the listener, are probably wondering the same thing. What was going on? Paola had an edible months before this happened in Colorado, a state where recreational marijuana is legal. To sort this out for us, I spoke with Joel Warner. Joel is a journalist and writer based here in Denver, and he wrote about Paola and Neal in 2016 for a local publication called Westword. Since then, Joel has continued to do a lot of reporting on marijuana legalization and immigration and where the twain meet.
Ann Marie Awad: Since legalization, do you have any sense of how often something like this has happened where people get deported or denied entry or denied green cards because of either using legal weed, working in the weed industry, what have you?
Joel Warner: There are no official statistics for many reasons. Now, we do have some ideas. For starters, between 2007 and 2012, according to Human Rights Watch, approximately 50,000 people were deported from the United States because of cannabis-based offenses.
Ann Marie Awad: Just cannabis?
Joel Warner: Yes.
Ann Marie Awad: Wow. Did she break a law to get her sent back to Chile?
Joel Warner: According to Colorado and an increasing number of States, she did not break any laws. She went to an officially licensed dispensary that was allowed to sell cannabis to anyone over the age of 21 whether they are US citizens or not, so, according to state law, she didn't break any laws. Now, according to federal law, she consumed a Schedule 1 substance, and according to immigration kind of rules and laws, anyone who commits a substance abuse offense, that is considered a deportable offense.
Ann Marie Awad: This did not require Paola to be picked up by police and arrested. Right?
Joel Warner: No, because-
Ann Marie Awad: To have a criminal record?
Joel Warner: Yes, because especially now the law says something else. Immigration law says something else. If you are entering the country or if you are speaking with immigration official and you admit to, just admit to, committing a cannabis-based offense or admit to planning to commit…
Ann Marie Awad: Yeah, you have to be suspected. Right?
Joel Warner: … a substance offense. Or you just have to say, "Yes, I'm a Canadian citizen. I'm going to Washington State to go to the Dave Matthews concert, and I'm going to stop by the dispensary right over the border that literally advertises itself to foreigners, to Canadians, and I'm going to purchase some cannabis." If you tell an immigration official this at the border, they can say, "We have just deemed you inadmissible for life"
Ann Marie Awad: Yeah. It's that term, right? It's admissible versus inadmissible?
Joel Warner: Yes.
Ann Marie Awad: It's not necessarily like criminal versus non-criminal. Right?
Joel Warner: No, because it's such a vague term. It just basically says like immigration officials have… It seems like they have a lot of leeway.
Ann Marie Awad: I think also part of what's at play here, too, is that the way that back… dating back to the Clinton administration, the way that we treat immigrants is that we hold them at a higher standard than American citizens. It's like how you and I can go consume legal weed all willy-nilly and it's fine, but if my friend is a green card holder and they're doing everything they can to come here legally and become a citizen legally, one harmless doobie can basically derail all of that, (Joel: Yes) and they don't even have to be arrested or tried in a court of law or anything like that.
Joel Warner: They don't even have to smoke that doobie. They don't even…
Ann Marie Awad: They just have to buy it.
Joel Warner: … have to. They don't even have to buy it. All they have to do is say, "I am planning to go to Colorado and purchase something from one of the dispensaries there."
Ann Marie Awad: Let's get back to Paola and her dilemma in LAX Airport. She had just made the very hard decision to accept a lifetime ban from the US, and she had just hung up the phone after telling all of this to Neal, who was still at work, and he started to panic and went to his boss.
Neal: The second we sat down, I just started crying and bawling into tears, and I told him, and he said, "Get on a plane." He said, "Get out of here," and I said, "I can't. I just started this job. It's my dream job. I can't do that," and he said, "Don't worry. It's not going to effect anything. This is crazy," and he said, "Just get on a plane," so I left.
Ann Marie Awad: Wow, so he didn't even hesitate?
Neal: No, not a second.
Paola: Definitely, it was the worst day of my life, so I was crying. I didn't know what to do or what will happen. All the opportunities and all the things that we were thinking, suddenly, everything had to stop because of this, and I thought that I will never see Neal again.
Neal: I went home and took out a bag and just started throwing things in it. I didn't have a ticket. I didn't have enough time to find one, and I'm calling my parents and calling my best friend, saying what happened and I'm leaving, and my mom going, "No. No. No. No. No. No. No, don't do that. You don't even know if she's left yet," and I said, "I'm leaving. I have to go."
Paola: I didn't see the light of the sun or… I was inside of the airport all the time, so I didn't know if it was at night or at… in the day. I don't remember. The only thing I remembered is that they put some hand-
Ann Marie Awad: Handcuffs?
Paola: Handcuffs, yes, in my hands.
Ann Marie Awad: You had to get on this plane in handcuffs?
Paola: No, but from the common room to the plane, yes, I had to use the handcuffs, and I was with two officers, and I was kind of ashamed because everyone were looking at me like, "What this girl did?" The LA airport is a huge place.
Neal: All this time, I'm calling the Custom Border Patrol in Los Angeles over and over and over again saying, "What's going on with Paola? Where is she? When is she going home?" I called once, and the officer said, "Why are you still calling? I'm not going to tell you anything. Stop calling," and I said, "Excuse me, I'll continue to call until I get the information that I'm entitled to."
Ann Marie Awad: To which they said?
Neal: "Okay, bye," so I kept calling. Her parents don't know she's being detained by immigration, and she has no way to tell them, so I'm the only one who knows. I texted her mother. I texted her that we're figuring it out and she's going to go home. I'm trying to figure out when. Right as I was boarding my plane to Chile, because I said, "Screw it. I'm going either way," I was a little surprised to get an actual phone call from Paola herself. This must have been 11 o'clock at night, and she said, "They're letting me go home. It's happening. I'm getting out of here," shaking and crying. The only thing I said was, "Good. I'll see you there," and she goes, "What?!?"
Paola: Neal was there in the airport, in the Santiago's airport. He arrived faster than me.
Ann Marie Awad: That must have been a big surprise for you.
Paola: Yeah, I was very surprised because I thought that I will never see him again, and, suddenly, he appears with my mom right next to him, and I was like, "What? Oh, my God, you're here," and then I cried again.
Neal: We gave each other a big hug.
Ann Marie Awad: How did she look at that point? Was she exhausted?
Neal: Yeah, she was exhausted…
Ann Marie Awad: Oh, man.
Neal: … and sad, but happy to see me.
Ann Marie Awad: They explore Paola's legal options, and she saves up some money to hire a lawyer, but the whole ordeal already starts to create tension between the two of them.
Neal: Her conclusion was, "I'm not going to do it now, but you need to move down here now."
Ann Marie Awad: How did that sound to you?
Neal: Terrifying.
Paola: Neal had his dream job in San Francisco with GoPro, and he was having a lot of fun there. He had a good situation. All his family and friends were there. At that time, his brother just got cancer, so he was very concerned about that, and I couldn't go there.
Ann Marie Awad: Some people might think that this story is a consequence of the Trump administration's policies, but, as Joel Warner points out, this story began while Obama was president.
Joel Warner: This is not a Trump versus Obama thing. In some ways, we really saw the uptick in folks being deported for drug-related offenses and including cannabis offenses during the Obama administration, and that is because of the Secure Communities initiative, which started even before Obama's presidency, that allowed immigration officials to have so much more access to local fingerprint data so they could obviously have access, allow more information about these low level drug crimes, and they used it to deport a lot more people for drug offenses. I think, according to Human Rights Watch, between 2007 and 2012, drug possession-related deportations increased 43%, so that was under the Obama administration.
Ann Marie Awad: Whoa, that's crazy.
Joel Warner: Now, having said that, it's not as if the Trump administration is backing off from these policies.
Neal: She and I had so many phone calls about it that ended up in tears on both sides, and one of them just burns in my head. I remember on the phone, on my little tech bus going back to my apartment in San Francisco one day, talking quietly to her and her saying, "No te vayas." Over and over in tears. No te vayas means don't leave, and "ven" means come here, over and over, like hypnotically over and over again. I was like on fire. I was ripping apart, and I think I just said no, and we hung up, but, yeah, that one burns.
Ann Marie Awad: Earlier this year, Paola filed all of the paperwork with the US embassy in Santiago, and all of this paperwork included evidence of her application to the University of Colorado, letters of recommendation from her bosses, information about her job qualifications and her salary, drug tests, the results of a physical examination, all of this to prove that she should be readmitted to the US on a tourist visa, and now it's just a waiting game. All of this has played out alongside a general breakdown in communications between Neal and Paola. They could, after a certain point, no longer see eye to eye on the future of their relationship, and both of them said that, before all of this happened, they never really used to argue, but afterwards.
Neal: She hangs up and then she calls back, and she says, "I didn't tell you everything that I wanted to tell you," and now she's yelling.
Ann Marie Awad: I've made that phone call.
Neal: She starts telling me this and that, and she says, "You have no heart," and then hangs up, and that's the last time I talked to her.
Ann Marie Awad: Do you think that's like for good?
Paola: I think so. It's not the time to talk, and I think that we both need to have our lives. We had a lot of fun. We were a really good couple, but now, with this whole situation and this distance and impossible things that we have, it's better to move on and to have your life.
Neal: Maybe it's over. Maybe we can finally start to move on. Maybe she's mad. Maybe I'm mad. Maybe sometimes you have to get angry. I'm scared that I'll never know what happened because maybe she's so angry, which I don't think she is, but maybe she is that she'd never even tell me.
Paola: We love each other. I really love Neal a lot. He is the most important love in my life, so, of course, he is someone difficult to forget, and if I talk with him every day, I will never forget him.
Ann Marie Awad: Do you feel like this whole incident drove a wedge between the two of you?
Neal: Yes.
Ann Marie Awad: You didn't even hesitate to say that. Wow.
Neal: Because it's true.
Ann Marie Awad: Paola is still waiting to hear from the US embassy. Remember, this decision, if it goes her way, only allows her to get a tourist visa. She says even if she and Neal aren't together anymore, being banned from the US has created other problems for her professionally. She's had to turn down work trips and has had to explain the ban to her employers. That's part of the reason that we're not using her last name in this episode, and if her application for a waiver is approved it is a temporary waiver. She would have to do this all over again a few years down the road.
Ann Marie Awad: On Something is a labor of love reported and written by me, Ann Marie Awad, and Joel Warner, who originally covered this story, find his story at onsomething.org, produced and mixed by Brad Turner, Rebecca Romberg, and Jon Pinnow. Our editor is Curtis Fox. Music by Brad Turner and Daniel Mescher, as well as Neal Barenblat, who was kind enough to share some of the music he wrote after meeting Paola. Head to onsomething.org to hear the whole album. Our executive producers are Rachel Estabrook and Kevin Dale.
Ann Marie Awad: On Something is made possible by lots of talented people like Francie Swidler, Kim Nguyen, Dave Burdick, Alison Borden, Matt Herz, and Iris Gottlieb. If you like what you're hearing, chitchat with us on social media. We're @OnSomethingpod on Twitter and Instagram, and we also have the On Something Newsletter for the weeks where there is no podcast in your feed. You can sign up at onsomething.org. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. This program is also made possible by Colorado Public Radio members. To learn about supporting CPR, go to cpr.org.
Ann Marie Awad: I swear, I promise you there is a legalization story in here somewhere. Just listen.
Brad Turner: That was great. On to the next.
Ann Marie Awad: (Singing) This I promise you. Okay.