Illegal immigrant loves wife from across border

March 6, 2012 - 3:25 AM
Immigrant Love Story

ADVANCE FOR USE TUESDAY, MARCH 6, 2012 AND THEREAFTER - In this Friday, Jan. 27, 2012 photo, Agustin, left, and Ana Portillo walk through the streets of central Tijuana in Tijuana, Mexico. Ana, a naturalized U.S. citizen who lives and works in Los Angeles, visits Agustin in Tijuana twice a month. The federal law that prohibits many illegal immigrants from living in the United States with their citizen spouses has been criticized by President Barack Obama, who proposed an overhaul that would allow some families to stay together. But it's unclear when the new policy will go into effect or how many families it will help. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — Agustin Portillo checks the oil in his wife's car, stores her luggage in her trunk and then drives her from his apartment in Tijuana to the U.S. border entry port because she is too afraid to maneuver the twisting streets of this sprawling, violent city by herself.

As they wait in the hours-long checkpoint line, he kisses and holds her hand. A romantic ballad comes on the radio and he sings to her softly. She responds with a smile.

When they are nearly at the border checkpoint, Agustin signs. He kisses his wife and steps out of the car. This is as far as he can go. After 20 years of living with his wife in Los Angeles, he is stuck here, on the wrong side of the fence.

Love, it turns out, does not conquer all, especially when it comes to U.S. immigration law.

"To see your family go and you can't go with them, it breaks your heart," he said.

It's a common misconception that an illegal alien married to a U.S. citizen is immediately granted "green card" status or citizenship. But Ana and Agustin, and thousands of couple like them, know the truth.

Ana, 60, is an immigrant from El Salvador who was allowed to become a U.S. citizen because of her homeland's war-torn past. She has a son who is a legal resident in Las Vegas and another son who is an illegal immigrant in Los Angeles. Her three grandchildren were born in the United States.

Agustin, 49, is an illegal immigrant from Mexico without much money, an unattractive candidate for legal status under U.S. immigration law.

They can live together in one of the poor, violence-plagued nations that they fled decades ago, or they can live like this, divided by a man-made border, desperate for the U.S. government to bless their marriage and unite their lives once again.

"I have some friends who say, 'I don't understand how you can live like that,'" Ana said. "It's very hard to find someone who is a good match for you... He really understands me."

They have been separated for nearly two years now. She misses his companionship, the way he took care of her when she was sick. He longs to see her every day, to seek her counsel when something troubles him, to feel her heat in his bed at night.

"Without her, I am practically nothing," he said.

They were both illegal immigrants living in the same Los Angeles apartment complex when they meet at a mutual friend's birthday party in 1988.

"We half-danced and that was it," Ana recalled.

They ran into each other again and again, in the hallway, in the neighborhood, at other parties. A courtship ensued.

Before leaving El Salvador, she had left her two young sons with their grandmother so she could earn money in the United States and return to start a business. But her family told her she couldn't come home, it was too dangerous

One day, she told Agustin needed to go back to fetch her sons and help them cross the border illegally. The boys were 12 and 9. They were too young to travel by themselves with a coyote, the smugglers who bring immigrants into the United States.

Agustin told her he had crossed many times and she would need his help.

They were "three times a wetback," her oldest son likes to say, because that's how many borders they had to illegally cross. Agustin carried the children's luggage on his back through Guatemala and into Mexico. They were detained by Mexican and U.S. border agents three times. Drug smugglers and gang leaders threatened their lives.

With help from Agustin and a series of battle-hardened coyotes, they eventually crossed illegally into the United States as a family, their bond cemented by the brutality of their desert passage.

Ann and her sons soon qualified for temporary visas under the Temporary Protected Status program. The law helped non-resident foreigners who didn't want to return to their homeland because of civil strife, such as the 12-year El Salvadoran civil war. The visas allowed Ana and her sons to live in the United States, but not to travel.

There was no amnesty for Agustin, who was born in Mexico.

Ana's oldest son graduated high school with honors, but he didn't qualify for federal financial aid because of his immigration status, so he went to trade school instead. His younger brother asked their mother, what was the point of taking advanced classes if I can't go to college? It was one of many times Ana cried for her sons.

She obtained a permanent immigration visa in 2001 with the help of a California immigration group. Her oldest son also applied for a permanent visa and her youngest promised to do the same. Ana was sure everyone in her family would soon become legal residents. They would be free from the constant threat of deportation.

Then the call came.

Her nephew, a U.S. citizen, had talked her youngest son into going to Tijuana for his 21st birthday. You speak English, the cousin said, they will think you are an American. But when her son tried to return to the United States after a weekend of youthful hijinks, the border patrol officer wanted more than to hear him he speak.

"My body trembled," Ana said, recalling how she felt when she learned of his troubles.

She sent a coyote to fetch her son. With one youthful mistake, he had gone from living in the United States legally with a temporary visa to no longer being qualified for a permanent visa because he had been caught entering the country illegally.

Agustin's troubles started in 2010. He developed a hernia. He worried he would die without seeing his family in Mexican one last time. He wanted to get to know his nephews. He begged Ana to move to Mexico with him.

My family is here, she told him, and I can't earn good money in Mexico. As a nanny for a white, affluent family, Ana collects $500 a week. The average salary for unskilled workers in Tijuana is roughly $100 a week, according to some estimates.

"I got desperate, impatient and I left," Agustin recalled.

He spent 10 months in his childhood home. After three, he was ready to return to the United States. Stick it out, Ana told him. She wanted him to be certain. He had broken her heart when he left. If he returned, she thought, he could never leave her again.

He tried to illegally cross the border twice using a visa that belonged to another man. The resemblance was very slight and at the checkpoint, the border patrol officers laughed at him.

"Brother, you must think I'm idiot, this isn't you," one of the guards told him.

The third time, Agustin decided to cross the old-fashioned way, the way people did before they erected not one, but two towering fences around the Tijuana border.

Agustin paid a coyote to take him to a border point miles away near Tucson, Ariz., where there was no fence. They walked for days in the desert and were about to cross when a whirling immigration helicopter flashed in the night sky above them.

The coyote ran one way. Agustin set off in the other direction, eventually crawling into a ditch hidden by rocks. When the sound of the helicopter faded, Agustin emerged to find he was alone.

For days, he trekked through desert plains dotted with cacti as vultures circled above his head. He whistled to let them know he was still alive. At one point, he passed a cow carcass. Even the cows that try to escape the herd don't survive here, he thought.

A rancher gave him food and water and someone else offered to drive him back to Tijuana.

When Ana heard the story, her heart sank. He wouldn't be coming back to her, after all, she thought.

Lawyers told Ana there was little she could do to legally get Agustin in the country. He been caught trying to sneak in country twice, a huge immigration offense. Agustin found an apartment in Tijuana, miles away from sisters in southern Mexico and from his wife, just hours away across the border.

"The United States doesn't forgive easily," he said.

It wasn't always this way.

Before 1996, illegal immigrants living in the United States could easily obtain visas or a "green card" if their spouse or parents were U.S. citizens or legal residents. But critics complained the law incentivized illegal immigration, and that year President Bill Clinton passed a law making it much harder for immigrant families to stay together.

Under the law, the immigrant and their spouse must file a visa petition and attend an interview with a U.S. Consulate in their native land. There, the undocumented immigrant learns they are ineligible to live in the United States because they entered the country illegally or illegally overstayed a tourist visa.

As punishment, a lucky few are banned from returning to the United States for three years. People who resided illegally in the United States for more than a year can't return for 10 years. Those who are caught crossing the border or have been deported but illegally returned to the United States can be banned for life.

This is the category Agustin likely falls in. He isn't certain. For years, he has been too terrified too apply for a visa, fearful that the application would cause him more trouble than good.

The law does allow for some exceptions. The couples can apply for an extreme hardship waiver to avoid the ban. For example, a terminally ill husband might argue that he needs his immigrant wife to care for him and he can't move to her native country because it has inadequate health care.

But the law does not define extreme hardship and case law suggests the government does not consider factors such as children or the potential earning losses of the spouse moving to the immigrant's home country.

In all, the State Department barred 22,000 people from re-entering the country for up to 10 years in 2010, up from roughly 13,000 in 2006. Nearly 19,000 people eventually received waivers allowing them to avoid the multi-year ban last year.

Last month, President Barack Obama proposed a slight change that would allow immigrants to seek a hardship waiver before they leave to their home country for a visa interview. But it's unclear when the new procedure will take effect. And the change won't help families who are denied waivers.

Muzaffar Chishti, an immigration lawyer with the Migration Policy Institute, estimates 3.4 million illegal immigrants should be able to qualify for immigration visas because of their spouses or parents, but can't obtain legal residency because they are subject to the multi-year ban. Ending the ban would help bring these people out from the shadows and into mainstream life, he said.

"Morally, it's the right thing to do," he said.

Immigration critics, however, claim it is too easy for illegal immigrants to qualify for the extreme hardship waiver. They support a permanent ban for anyone living in the country illegally, unless the health or welfare of the immigrant's spouse or children would be severely affected.

"When I hear that the United States is tearing apart families, I really have a problem with that, because people have a choice," said David Seminara, a former State Department consular officer who opposes the hardship waivers. "It's obviously difficult to uproot your life and move to another country, but if my wife was deported to another country I would follow her anywhere in the world."

Agustin has been living in Tijuana for nearly a year. Ana spends her weekends driving back and forth from Los Angeles. He would do the same thing for her, he said.

When she enters Mexico, the Tijuana border patrol officers wave her though. They never ask her for legal documents.

"Sometimes I'm nervous, but I am excited, too, because very soon I am going to be with him," she said.

She drives the 10-minute journey from the checkpoint to Agustin's one-bedroom apartment. There is no fridge, no sofa and no oven. He sleeps on an air mattress and stores his food in coolers filled with ice. When Ana arrives, he pours her favorite cocktail: tomato juice and Corona, no lime.

She has worked all week, but the next day she wakes up before sunrise to help him at his job selling used goods at a Tijuana street market. They drive to a dirty street lined with taco and fruit stands and lay out a large tarp on the ground in front of Agustin's van. The merchandise is displayed on every available surface: women's blouses and bed sheets hang from the van windows, used televisions, microwaves, batteries and sneakers line the road and dinnerware rests on a makeshift table made from a sheet of plywood balanced on a tool kit and a paint bucket. Agustin tries to make sure he prices his goods lower than the other street merchants do.

After seven hours of haggling and doling out change under the boiling sun, they have earned $50. The most expensive items, a Sharp television selling for $35 and a pair of beat-up Puma running shoes priced at $8, don't got sold though they are the most asked about items. The prices are too steep for people who shop at street markets, Agustin said. In pesos, the Pumas cost $100.

Ana gives Agustin their profit so he can buy food to eat during the week when she is gone.

They don't know how long they can go on like this. Ana is considering buying a small, $25,000 house in central Tijuana with a big yard full of cactus and succulents so that Agustin will be more comfortable and they won't be throwing money away on rent. She could live here and cross into San Diego each day for work, she said. The home would also be a good investment for her youngest son in case he ever gets deported. Then he could live in Tijuana and his two children wouldn't have to travel that far to see their father, she said.

Agustin likes the idea of living with his wife and her sons again, but he wishes it didn't have to be in Tijuana, which the State Department describes as a hotbed of narcotics-related violence.

"Life is very hard here," he said. "It's very dangerous. You have to know what times you can go out and where you can go."

The city's main church, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is filled with travelers praying for God to help them cross safely. Outside, street hawkers sell churros and encourage tourists to take pictures with Tijuana's infamous painted donkey-zebras. The American travelers barely seem to notice the would-be immigrants, the dour-looking men and women sitting in the public square outside the church clutching backpacks and dirty duffel bags.

Agustin passes this corner every day on his way to the gym, a lone luxury that helps him relieve his stress and loneliness. But sometimes, the sight of Los Indocumentados, as they are called in Tijuana, makes him sadder.

"I am in the same position as them, waiting to cross to a better life and unable to do so," Agustin said on a recent afternoon as he and Ana walked to the church. Inside, they kneeled side by side and prayed.

A few miles away, the border fence hugs Tijuana tightly, enclosing the people who can't reach the other side. The highly-militarized defense system features thermal imaging surveillance cameras, patrolling aircrafts and rows of strategically-placed walls, fences and watchtowers. Graffiti in English and Spanish defile the steel and concrete fence.

"No wall can contain my heart," reads one message. "This wall will not save your economy," reads another hand-scrawled message.

The edge of the fence rises from the beach in western Tijuana. At sunset, with the orange bulb of the sun falling into the waves, the scene is almost romantic.

But not for Agustin and Ana, who walk along side it silently, taking in the angry messages on the wall.

"This is where dreams die," Agustin announces suddenly.

When Agustin first began driving Ana to the border at the end of their visits, he cried as she tried to console him in the hectic maze of steamed taco stands, bass-thumping cars and makeshift tourist shops selling Virgin Mary statues and soccer jerseys. San Ysidro, Calif. is the busiest port of entry in the United States.

"He used to tell me, "If only you could put me in your luggage,'" Ana recalled.

Now, these drives are more muted. He knows his tears upset her.

On her most recent trip, after he had left the car to walk back to his life alone in Tijuana, Ana handed her U.S. passport to a burly border patrol officer. He cooed to her: You are so pretty. Do you have a boyfriend? He doesn't have papers, right?

"My husband," Ana replied.

The man waved her forward. She was in the United States again. She was alone again.

Agustin said if he had the opportunity he would tell illegal immigrants not to "come here and risk their lives, risk death, to break the law."

But he would do it again, he said. For Ana.

"She's my life," he said.