At first Brown didn't think he would last the full two weeks living in this rustic ranching village made up of 100 or so small adobe, brick and stick houses in the western Mexican state of Sinaloa. The trip alone from Mesa was hard enough. Twenty hours in his pickup, the last 15 miles a bone-rattling drive up a winding, rutted road into the mountains where men with automatic weapons have been known to rob travelers.
But he was determined to make the best of it. He had no choice.
It was the Christmas holidays. Brown was visiting his wife, Virginia Carrillo, and son, Bryan. Their separation began in September the day the family applied for legal status for Carrillo, Brown's illegal-immigrant wife.
They hoped Carrillo would qualify for a green card based on her marriage and child to Brown. Instead, Carrillo was barred from returning to the U.S. for 10 years.
Now, the family is forced to live separately on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.
Brown, 44, lives in Mesa. Carrillo, 29, lives in Mexico, staying with her parents in the village where she grew up. She is raising Bryan, a U.S. citizen who turned 3 in December.
As the Browns' case shows, the days when illegal immigrants could marry U.S. citizens and easily get green cards are long over. In 1996, Congress passed a law that made it much tougher for illegal immigrants who marry U.S. citizens to acquire legal status, part of an effort to crack down on illegal immigration and sham marriages.
To apply, illegal immigrants must now leave the country first. But once they do, they risk being barred from re-entering the U.S. for up to 10 years unless they can prove that the separation would create an extreme hardship for the U.S. citizen spouse.
More than a decade after the law went into effect, Americans remain largely unaware of the tougher rules, which even when followed can have disastrous results, as the Browns discovered.
"Just getting through these four months has been difficult," Brown said, sitting at the kitchen table in El Nacimiento, a plate of machaca and eggs getting cold in front of him. "I can't begin to think that it could be 10 years until we reunite."
Couple met at workBrown and Carrillo met at Boeing in October 2001. He helps test equipment on Apache military helicopters. She was a janitor working for Aramark at Boeing. Carrillo caught Brown's eye one day while he was working out in the company gym and she was vacuuming.
"I remember he walked over and unplugged the vacuum cleaner," Carrillo said.
Brown's playfulness was enough to start a conversation. What's your name? Are you married? Do you have any children? How old are you?
Carrillo gave Brown her phone number.
"I thought he was funny and simpatico," she said.
One question Brown didn't ask was whether Carrillo was in the country illegally. In the wake of 9/11, illegal immigration had taken on an even higher profile, and Arizona had become the new gateway for illegal immigration from Mexico. Brown wondered if Carrillo might have crossed the border illegally. He asked a co-worker about it. The co-worker assured him she must have papers because Boeing is a defense contractor and people who work there have to pass a government security check before they are hired.
A year passed before Brown mustered the courage to ask Carrillo out. Their first date was a day trip to Flagstaff. Driving into town, Brown stopped at the Barnes & Noble bookstore and bought two Spanish-English dictionaries, one for him and one for her.
"That's how we communicated," Brown said.
One day, while the couple was still dating, Carrillo confided something to Brown: She was in the U.S. illegally. Brown was surprised at first. But he didn't think it was a big deal.
"I never really cared," Brown said. "That really wasn't important to me."
The couple dated for a year and a half before getting married on Valentine's Day 2004, a small wedding held at a chapel on Broadway Road in Mesa. Afterward, the couple drove to Las Vegas for a four-day honeymoon at the Stratosphere.
"We went out to eat and walked around the different casinos," Brown said. "One night we walked from the Stratosphere to the other end of the strip and took a cab back."
A few weeks later, Carrillo found out she was pregnant. Carrillo had bad morning sickness, so she quit her job at Aramark. A few months later, immigration agents arrested nine illegal immigrants working at Boeing for Aramark and another company. The arrests were part of the Department of Homeland Security's crackdown on illegal immigrants working at defense locations.
The raid frightened Carrillo. Several of the people deported were her co-workers. For months she worried that immigration agents would come to her house and arrest her, too.
Immigrant trekCarrillo had come to Arizona in September 2001. She paid a man she knew from El Nacimiento $600 to smuggle her across the border and get her to Mesa. Two older sisters and a brother were already living there, all but one illegally. Carrillo recalls crossing the border near Sasabe and walking through the desert for seven hours until the group reached a road, where another smuggler drove them to Mesa.
El Nacimiento is like a lot of rural towns in Mexico. There are hardly any men left. All but the very young and old have made the trek north looking for work al otro lado, on the other side.
Most of the undocumented immigrants from El Nacimiento and the surrounding villages have settled in the same area near Horne and Broadway in central Mesa.
Carrillo tapped into that network as soon as she arrived, getting jobs taking care of children and cleaning houses. Later she bought a fake green card and other bogus documents on the street, which helped get her the janitor's job with Aramark working at Boeing.
After the marriage in 2004, she talked about getting her green card. Brown thought it was a good idea. He made an appointment to see an immigration lawyer.
"My wife is the one who wanted to go," Brown said. "She just didn't want to live in the shadows anymore. She wanted to be able to drive. She wanted to be able to work, and she couldn't do any of these things."
The lawyer's name was Carroll Clark. Brown picked Clark's name out of the phonebook because his practice was nearby in Mesa.
Clark told them the sobering news. The only way Carrillo could get a green card was to return to Mexico and wait 10 years.
"I was shocked," Brown said.
The couple decided to go forward with the paperwork. Clark told them immigration reform allowing illegal immigrants to earn legal status was gaining steam in Congress. Getting in the pipeline early might speed their case should the reforms pass, Clark told them, according to the Browns. Clark could not be reached for comment.
The couple had another reason to be hopeful. One of Carrillo's sisters in California also had married a U.S. citizen. Carrillo's sister was able to get around the 10-year bar by returning to Mexico and applying for a waiver. That took only six months.
By the summer of 2007, the immigration-reform bill the Browns were hoping would pass in Congress had petered out. By then the couple had switched lawyers after Clark dropped their case. The couple found out later that he had been disbarred.
Their new lawyer, Jose Bracamonte, counseled against Carrillo leaving the country to apply for a green card. An illegal immigrant who entered the U.S. lawfully with a visa and then overstayed could get a green card by marrying U.S. citizens. But not Carrillo. As their first lawyer had told them, because Carrillo had entered illegally and remained unlawfully for more than a year, she faced the 10-year bar under the tougher rules passed by Congress in 1996.
The only way around the 10-year wait was to go to the U.S. consulate in Juarez, Mexico, and apply for a waiver. To receive the waiver, an illegal immigrant must convince officials at the consulate that the separation will create an extreme hardship for the U.S. citizen spouse. At first, the chance of getting a waiver was pretty high. But in recent years, Bracamonte told them, proving hardship had become more difficult as the U.S. clamped down on illegal immigration.
"I told them there was a low probability of success," Bracamonte said. "My experience is that the chances are 50-50. . . . It's very arbitrary."
The couple decided to take the chance. They believed Carrillo would qualify for the waiver because their son was a U.S. citizen, and barring Carrillo from re-entering the U.S. would split apart their family.
"We were looking at the bright side," Brown said. "We had never heard of anyone getting hit like that before. We were prepared for her to stay for six months or even a year. There was going to be some sort of penalty, and we were willing to pay that."
Bracamonte later said Brown was naive. "Michael suffers from an exaggerated notion of American justice."
Carrillo got an appointment to go to the U.S. consulate in Juarez to apply for the waiver. Juarez is across the border from El Paso, Texas. On Sept. 6, 2007, she went inside the consulate while Brown was told to wait across the street. Hours later Carrillo came back carrying a piece of paper. She was in tears. A U.S. State Department official had checked off two boxes. The first said Carrillo had been barred from re-entering the U.S. for 10 years because she had been living illegally in the country for more than a year.
The second box stated that Carrillo had admitted she had left the country and come back illegally more than once. Therefore, she was not eligible for a waiver.
Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., an organization that favors less immigration, said Carrillo got what she deserved.
"If you want immigration laws to be meaningful, then people have to pay serious penalties for violating those laws year after year," Camarota said.
The problem, he said, is that immigration penalties were rarely fully enforced, which is one reason why the nation's illegal-immigrant population has mushroomed to 12 million people. So when the penalties are enforced, people are shocked, Camarota said.
A study published by the center in 2003 showed that fewer than 12,000 illegal immigrants had received either three- or 10-year bars during the first four years after the 1996 law took effect.
Data from the State Department suggests that more people are being barred under the tougher rules. The State Department barred 13,209 people from re-entering the U.S. for 10 years in 2006, the most recent year data was available. The State Department issued 3,049 waivers that year. A State Department official attributed the increase in people being barred to an increase in applications for permanent resident visas, or green cards. But immigration lawyers say a recent crackdown on illegal immigrants is also a factor.
Carl Shusterman is an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles who used to prosecute illegal immigrants for the former Immigration and Naturalization Service. He thinks the 10-year bar is overly harsh. It also hasn't stemmed illegal immigration as intended.
He would prefer the government imposed fines in cases such as Carrillo's, "which to me sounds a lot more reasonable than breaking up their families."
Distant homeAfter Carrillo was told she couldn't return to the U.S. for 10 years, the family took a bus to Hermosillo because their pickup had been stolen during the consulate appointment in Juarez. In Hermosillo, Brown and Carrillo had to go separate ways. Carrillo and Bryan rode a bus to El Nacimiento. Brown flew back to Phoenix, alone.
"When this happened, there was no question who Bryan would go with - with his mother," Brown said.
The change from Mesa to Mexico was hard for Bryan. He woke up crying every night calling for his dad. And the first week, he got sick with the stomach flu and had a high fever. Carrillo had to take him to the hospital in Choix, an hour away, on a rickety old school bus.
The readjustment was also hard for Carrillo. Living in Mesa, she had a washing machine and lots of other appliances. In El Nacimiento, she washes clothes by hand on a stone in the back of the house.
Carrillo thinks she has been treated unjustly by the U.S. government, even though she crossed the border illegally. She said she worked hard in the U.S. and never got in trouble with the law.
"It's not right," Carrillo said. "I'm not a bad person."
Brown and Carrillo are now contesting the decision. Bracamonte, the couple's lawyer, wrote a letter asking the State Department to reconsider the decision making Carrillo ineligible for a waiver. Brown also wrote to Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl asking for help.
Carrillo claims she misunderstood the official when asked about leaving and re-entering the U.S. She thought the official was asking whether Carrillo had ever left the state, not the country.
"I said yes because I had visited my sister in California," Carrillo said.
Carrillo could try sneaking back into the country illegally. But tighter border security has made crossing the desert increasingly deadly. And if she were caught by the Border Patrol, she could go to prison for violating the 10-year bar.
Brown has had trouble coping with the separation. He stayed in his house in Mesa with the lights off for days after Carrillo and Bryan stayed in Mexico. He started overeating and gained 10 pounds the first three weeks. He has sought emotional help from a counselor at work.
"A lot of it was just depression, deep depression," Brown said.
Bracamonte doubts the State Department will reopen the couple's case. He said their case should serve as a cautionary tale.
"What I'm seeing is thousands of spouses of U.S. citizens locked into illegal status because the only solution requires a 10-year separation from their family," Bracamonte said. "Most people are not going to choose that. It's inhumane."
Brown tries to see his family once a month. In October and November, he met Carrillo and Bryan for a weekend in Nogales, on the Mexican side of the border. And Bryan came to stay with him in Mesa for two weeks during Thanksgiving.
And then there was the two-week trip during the holidays to El Nacimiento, his first trip to Carrillo's house.
Brown got used to the bathroom situation after a few days. And by the end of the trip, he didn't want to leave.
The hardest part was saying bye to Bryan. As Brown loaded up his pickup, Bryan spun around in the dirt on his new all-terrain tricycle, a Christmas gift from Brown. Then all of a sudden Bryan realized what was happening. He got off the trike and ran to his dad.
"Home, home," Bryan kept saying, pointing at the pickup.
Brown picked up the boy. "No, Bryan," he said. "This is your home now."
Reach the reporter at daniel .email@example.com or 602-444-8312.