The second time H. Jack Schyma proposed to his girlfriend, he drove eight hours through the night from Houston to her home in Mexico's Valley of the Angels. Most long-distance boyfriends would have stopped bothering with the trip by then, which Jack had made every two weeks for nearly a year. But even when Rocio Ramirez turned down his first proposal, he said he'd keep coming back until they were united. "Leave it to the angels," he said.
From the beginning, 400 miles and a border never mattered to Jack.
The couple met on a fluke, after Rocio, an executive who worked 16-hour days at a Monterrey computer factory, glanced at Jack's Yahoo! Personals ad, which had been printed by a friend.
After four days of voluminous e-mailing, Jack visited. The cherubic, divorced, middle-aged caterer didn't know what Rocio thought of him when he first climbed out of his Chevy compact pickup, bleary-eyed, at a Monterrey gas station. But when Rocio met his sons in Houston a few months later, she knew Jack had what she was missing.
"I was 37, I was a manager -- very successful," said Rocio, who always speaks barely above a whisper, "but I was alone. With him I learned that family is important." Still, she declined his first proposal, worried about the difference in their ages.
Jack had fallen in love from the start. "She is the most beautiful woman I have ever known," he said. "Not just on the outside, but in her heart as well."
The second time he proposed, he gave Rocio a mechanical angel. On its lilting arms dangled the ring. As soon as she put it on, she was hooked. She quit her job and dove into planning the wedding.
The couple exchanged vows before 200 guests at the Queen of Angels Cathedral. They dined on tables festooned with lilies and roses at the majestic Hotel La Quinta Real. A 14-piece orchestra and a mariachi band serenaded the fiesta into the night.
Then the newlyweds whisked off to Europe for a three-week honeymoon. They saw castles in Spain and windmills in Portugal. At the top of the Eiffel Tower, they scrolled their names inside a heart.
Nearly a year later, Jack flips steaks at the Onion Creek cafe and waits for a staffer from Representative Sheila Jackson Lee's office, who never shows. He's starting to give up on his government, and the angles are long gone. The three-week honeymoon is still the longest he and Rocio have been together.
They are desperately in love, and desperately far apart.
What came between Jack and Rocio at the U.S. border separates many binational couples, but few anticipate it.
When the Schymas returned from Europe, they went through customs in Miami. They told the officer they had just married, and he granted Rocio a six-month travel visa to use until she received a marriage visa.
The couple flew on to Houston and drove to Monterrey to open their wedding gifts and sell Rocio's car. The problems began a few days later, when they tried to come back.
It was 3 a.m. when Jack pulled up at the border in Laredo. Chatting with the border guard, he mentioned again that he and Rocio had married. But instead of waving them through, the guard ordered the couple out of the car and interrogated them.
The guards said the travel visa wasn't valid because Rocio planned to live in Houston, not just travel there. Jack argued that all of her possessions were still in Monterrey, but they said it didn't matter. They seized Rocio's visa and sent the Schymas back to Mexico.
Rocio cried much of the way home. Jack was shocked at how they had treated her. "They were rude as shit," he said. "They didn't care."
Jack had to run his catering business, so he returned to Houston alone. He immediately filed a petition for a fiancée visa, which is intended to unite married couples while they await a green card. The guards in Laredo had told him the process would take two or three months.
Without a car, Rocio was stranded at her hillside apartment, so she rented it out and moved in with her aunt. Jack visited when he could, but Rocio spent most days alone. She watched telenovelas and surfed the Web. Three months passed, then eight.
Finally, Rocio scored an appointment at the U.S. consulate in Juárez. Jack called a 1-900 number listed on the office's Web site to ask if Rocio would have any trouble, given her confiscated visa. "No problem," they told him. "Just come." Rocio bought a one-way ticket to Juárez and Jack drove down.
They lined up in front of the consulate at 4:30 a.m. last month, flanked by beggars and coffee vendors. By then, Rocio was five months pregnant with their daughter, Angela. She sat on a pillow on the sidewalk, too heavy with her pregnancy to stand. Once the sun rose, a guard told her to stand in file, or she would be sent to the back.
"They more or less treat you like cattle in a cattle chute," Jack said.
The doors opened at 7 a.m. and the Schymas waited on folding chairs in a bare room packed with 400 people. Half a day passed before Rocio's number was called. The Schymas shuffled up to a bulletproof window and spoke through a hole in the glass. Their paperwork was in order, the officer said, and an FBI report had turned up nothing suspicious. But when he discovered Rocio's original visa had been confiscated, he said another FBI report would have to be done. It would take another two or three months.
Then a woman fingerprinted Rocio, who had no place to wash her inky hands, because the bathroom lacked soap and towels. Three months for another appointment sounded too soon, the fingerprint lady said. It would probably take another eight.
Jack was enraged. "The way you treat people makes me embarrassed to be an American," he told her.
He remembers his surprise when she didn't even flinch.
From the beginning, Jack knew obtaining legal status in the United States would be a Kafkaesque pain in the ass. He had moved to the United States from Germany when he was five, and spent years applying for citizenship. He waited two years for the INS simply to mail his papers from Minnesota to San Antonio. He recalls storming out of the immigration office one day in frustration.
"They treated me like dirt," he said. "And I told them to go to hell, and I left."
But years later, he never expected his wife would be turned away on an erratically enforced technicality.
"We talk about human rights all over the world," he said, "but when it comes to treating people right, we don't do it at our borders."
According to an immigration official, the confiscation of Rocio's visa may have violated U.S. protocol.
"If it comes to the attention of the inspector that the individual is now married to a United States citizen, that could indeed jeopardize their ability for admission under that [travel] visa category," said Chris Bentley, spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. "But the visa itself would not be pulled from them," he added. "It would still be a valid visa."
When told Rocio's visa had been seized, Bentley said he would have to investigate and then call back a few days later with a comment. But a week passed, and neither Bentley nor Juárez officials responded.
Jonathan Jones, program coordinator for Proyecto Libertad, an immigrant rights group, said cases like Rocio's are extremely common at the Texas border. "From my experience, the protocol is they take your visa, rip it up, and that's it," he said.
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Jones was surprised Rocio had received a travel visa in Miami. Normally, someone who is married to a U.S. citizen is considered an "intending immigrant," he said, and is required to apply for a marriage visa.
But he said the strict enforcement of that requirement on the Texas border is a problem. "I believe we want secure borders and we want to keep out people who will do us harm," he said, "but the people who have to pay the price are most often Mexican women and children who are simply trying to reunify with their families."
Rocio's visa application is one amid a stack of six million received every year by the U.S. government. Representative Jackson Lee's staffer has begun trying to help her. But if the aid fails, Rocio might need to slip another visa application into the pile for her soon-to-be-born child.
For now, every day leads nowhere. "I cannot even buy the stuff for the baby," she said, "because I don't even know if I am going to be here or there. I cannot even work or do anything. I just wait."