USA

High School Sweethearts Rush To Marry Under Threat Of Deportation

For one North Carolina couple, a possible deportation has turned into a modern-day tragedy of love.

USA
"These two are a testament to true love." — Photo Illustration: Diana Quatch
May 22, 2017 at 4:54 PM ET

With a diamond ring in his pocket, Robert Paulino boarded a plane with the intent of seeing his fiancée, Wendy Miranda-Fernandez. The 21-year-old fast-food cook finagled a few days off from work last week, flying from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Houston to New Orleans, and concluding with a three-and-a-half-hour drive to Jena, Louisiana. For him, that travel was worth the end goal: to marry his high school sweetheart before she was deported.

Paulino, a U.S. citizen, arrived in a T-shirt and shorts at the La Salle Detention Facility in Jena on May 17. There was no wedding music or cake, no wedding dress or tuxedo and no friends and family were in attendance. Behind a glass partition sat Miranda-Fernandez, the 23-year-old love of his life, in a large gray sweater and navy blue pants.

Their fingers pressed against the glass and they looked into each other’s eyes, Paulino later recalled. But there was a problem. The remaining documents for their marriage, which had been approved by federal officials, could not be finalized on account of a sudden and unforeseen snafu. It was the second time their attempt to tie the knot had unraveled in as many weeks.

“To tell you the truth, I got sick to my stomach,” Paulino told Vocativ. “My head was spinning. My face was on fire.”

More Meet The Terrified ‘Dreamers’ in Trump’s Crosshairs

The derailed nuptials were just the latest dismay experienced by the young couple in the last two months. Detained in March during a routine check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, Miranda-Fernandez is one of the thousands of undocumented immigrants arrested during President Donald’s Trump’s first 100 days in office with no criminal history. She is on the verge of being deported back to El Salvador, where she fled the country’s brutal gang violence nearly a decade ago.

The pair is now scrambling to tie the knot during what is likely Miranda-Fernandez’s final days in the U.S. Though the marriage does not promise any reprieve for the young detainee, it may be their last chance to designate their devotion.

“These two are a testament to true love,” Nardine Guirguis, an attorney for Miranda-Fernandez, told Vocativ.

A Budding Love

The couple’s paths met in 2010 when they attended Riverside High School together in Durham. Paulino was a sophomore and Miranda-Fernandez was a freshman. But the pair rode the same bus to and from school and talked to one another daily. Their conversations soon became a budding courtship. Within a few months, they were inseparable.

For Miranda-Fernandez, it was nothing short of a fairy tale. Only two years prior, she was a frightened 14-year-old who had arrived in the U.S. alone. A gang murder allegedly witnessed by Miranda-Fernandez outside her home in El Salvador prompted the teen to make the long and dangerous journey north, according to her lawyer and family. After weeks of travel, she turned herself in at the U.S. border and was allowed to apply for asylum as an unaccompanied minor. She then went to live with her mother, who was already in North Carolina.

“The fact that Wendy put her life at risk and left as a teen, instead of staying behind, should tell people enough about the severity of the situation she was facing back home,” said Viridiana Martinez, co-founder of Alerta Migratoria NC, an immigrant rights group based in the Raleigh-Durham area.

A recent travel warning issued by the U.S. State Department noted that El Salvador is rife with gang activity and violence, and has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. In 2015, more than 6,600 people were murdered in the country of 6.1 million people, compared to 352 that year in New York City, which is home to more than 8 million people.

More Trump’s ‘Deportation Force’ Looks A Lot Like Obama’s — So Far

In June 2014, roughly three years after she and Paulino began dating, a federal Board of Immigration Appeals denied Miranda-Fernandez’s application for permanent asylum. She was, however, granted an annual stay from deportation for the next three years and was required to check in with ICE regularly while she remained in the U.S.

During that time, the young couple worked various jobs to save money and began to plan a life together. Paulino stayed at his mother and stepfather’s home while he served fast food at a McDonald’s on Duke University’s campus, and later landed a gig at Wingstop, a national restaurant chain. Miranda-Fernandez, who remained with her mother, cleaned houses, worked in a warehouse, and later sold wigs and other products at a beauty shop.

Paulino began studying to become a nurse, he said. Miranda-Fernandez wanted to go to school to study business or cosmetology. The lovers, now together five years, got engaged in April 2016, the same month that Donald Trump all but cinched the Republican nomination for president.

Trump’s repeated vows as a candidate to crack down on illegal immigration and banish millions of undocumented residents from the country did not shake the couple’s faith in their future, Paulino said. Even after the new president took office and reports of immigration raids and arrests began to flood television and social media, the couple remained unfazed.

“There might have been a little concern,” Paulino said. “But by the way it all sounded, they were only going after criminals and bad guys in the U.S.”

‘The Love Of My Life’

Yet, federal immigration officials had begun to target an increasing number of people living in the country illegally who were otherwise law-abiding. Between Jan. 22 and April 29 of this year, ICE detained 10,845 undocumented immigrants without criminal records, according to statistics released by the agency last week. The total represents a 256 percent increase from the 4,242 arrested under former President Barack Obama during roughly the same period last year.

Miranda-Fernandez, who has no criminal history, became one of them. On a Wednesday morning in late March, she and Paulino made the two-and-a-half hour drive from Durham to Charlotte for one of her regular check-ins with ICE. After the appointment, they had planned to spend an afternoon going shopping and strolling through the city’s parks, Paulino said. But his fiancée never returned to their car after he dropped her off. He received a call hours later notifying him that she had been detained.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) took unlawfully present Salvadoran national Wendy Miranda into custody March 22 in Charlotte, N.C., after she received all appropriate process before the federal immigration courts,” Bryan Cox, an agency spokesman, told Vocativ in an email. “All those in violation of immigration law may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”

More ICE Tried To Detain ‘Dreamer’ Who Had Unpaid Parking Tickets

As Paulino made the drive back to Durham alone, he was uncertain whether he’d see or hear from his fiancée again. “I had no how she’d ever be able to call me, or where they might take her,” he said. “It was crazy. Terrifying.”

In the weeks that followed, Paulino said he was hardly able to eat or sleep. But he received a flicker of hope at the end of April when Guirguis’ law firm learned of Miranda-Fernandez’s pending deportation and took on her case. The attorney filed a request for an emergency stay of removal, as well as a motion to reopen Miranda-Fernandez’s immigration case and to reapply for asylum, arguing that new evidence showed her life would be in jeopardy were she to be returned to El Salvador.

Guirguis also informed the couple that they could apply to marry while Miranda-Fernandez remained in federal custody, a request they submitted and that ICE later approved. The marriage offered no guarantee to halt Miranda-Fernandez’s removal, though it would allow her defense team to file a change of circumstance motion that could strengthen their case, Guirguis told Vocativ.

For Paulino, it meant more than just a shot at saving his sweetheart.

“Wendy’s the love of my life,” he said.

An Everyday Nightmare

But since the marriage was approved, it’s been nothing but heartache for the groom.

Earlier this month, he drove more than 500 miles to the Irwin County Detention Center in rural Georgia, where his bride-to-be was being held at the time. It was only after Paulino arrived at the sprawling complex on May 5 that he learned that immigration officials had quietly transferred Miranda-Fernandez to another detention center — just several hours before his scheduled appointment with her, he said. No one would tell him where she was or why she had been relocated, Paulino added.

It took him several more days to find out that Miranda-Fernandez was now in custody at Louisiana’s La Salle Detention Facility, another 600 miles and three states away from where she had been. By then, Paulino was back in Durham and working his regular shifts at WingStop. He left again as soon as he could.

“I’m lucky my boss hasn’t fired me yet,” Paulino said, adding that he was recently promoted to be an assistant manager. “He’s been very understanding.”

Problems for Paulino arose this time around when he tried to obtain a marriage certificate from the Rapides Parish Courthouse in Alexandria, Louisiana, about a half-hour’s drive the detention center. The clerk wouldn’t issue one to Paulino because he only had a photocopy of Miranda-Fernandez’s ID, he said. The original document remains in ICE custody.

More ICE Is Using Stingrays To Round Up Undocumented Immigrants

“It’s been a nightmare. All day, every day,” Paulino told Vocativ from his hotel room in Alexandria late last week before flying back to North Carolina.

Meanwhile, his fiancée’s fate remains perilous, with her deportation imminent. Last Thursday, ICE agreed to delay Miranda-Fernandez’s removal for at least one week while the Board of Immigration Appeals considers her motion to reopen her asylum case, a spokeswoman for North Carolina Rep. G.K. Butterfield told Vocativ. (Butterfield has tried to intervene on the behalf of the young woman.)

Still, there is no way to know how the board might rule

“The clock is ticking in a way that’s against her life,” Guirguis told Vocativ.

Paulino said he tries not to think about that much. Should he be able to get all of their paperwork together for the marriage in time, he said he’ll return to Louisiana at a moment’s notice.

And he’ll have the diamond ring, which is still in his pocket.

“I just want to hold her hand, and I can’t,” he said.