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Love's Labor Lost

The night before her deportation hearing, Magali Brunson drank a few glasses of wine with her landlady, two of her landlady's three daughters, the grandmother of those daughters, an old friend of the landlady's family from back home in Nebraska, and several female friends who'd stopped by to find out how dire the situation might be, which turned out to be very.

"My lawyer says my chances are less than 50 percent," the 28-year-old Magali told them.

Should she be deported, she would have sixty days in which to leave the United States. "When I thought about it, I was shaking from my nose to my toes," she says, trying out a rhyme in English. But typically, she continued to behave in a charming manner, introducing everyone to everyone else more than once and laughing whenever the situation remotely deserved it. As often happens when females gather around, the seriousness of the primary subject soon gave way to a light buzz on the topic of hair, its attendant disasters and potential improvements. Recently, Magali had come that close to dying her short dark-brown hair a color known as "rhubarb."

"Oooh, bad idea," she says now. "I can't imagine what the judge would think."

Magali is sitting in the waiting room of the Executive Office for Immigration Review. It's oddly reminiscent of a vet's office, with its stark white linoleum and two small photographs--Bill Clinton and Janet Reno--stuck off-kilter on one wall. Magali's friends, all twenty of whom are here to speak on her behalf should they get the chance, fill up and overflow two wooden benches. A few Hispanic children pertaining to an earlier case run by, dressed in a representative sampling of Denver pro-sports jerseys.

Conversation is trilingual. The people from Continental Book, where Magali worked after her marriage dissolved, speak Spanish and French. The people from Ball Corporation, where her ex-husband worked, speak in quip and engineer-ese. The landlady's contingent, including the longtime Nebraska friend, the daughters and the grandma, is still trying to come up with a down-home, Midwestern solution. The most obvious one, they point out, is a quick, fake marriage.

"Nope, he's too young," Magali says of the 27-year-old they propose. "Although I guess younger than me is better than nothing."

"I could go for that myself," one of the daughters says.
"I'd settle for 48," says the landlady.
"I'd settle for fifty," the grandma adds.

"Here you go, Magali," says the Nebraska neighbor, handing over an umbrella. "Go out in the hall and snag the next good-looking guy you see."

"Good-looking? What do I need that for?" Magali asks. "I just need a husband. And just for five years."

The fact is, Magali is not about to enter into the sort of marriage the INS considers fraudulent--which is what the agency thinks she has already done. "I can't go to the supermarket and buy a husband," she says. "I'm going to fight this."

"I had been to the United States once or twice," Magali Brunson remembers, "but it had never been my first choice of where to go."

Born and raised in Veracruz, Mexico, and educated as a construction project engineer, she was working on a new can factory in Toluca when she met Aaron Brunson early in 1995. He'd been sent down from Denver by Ball on a temporary assignment, and the two found themselves working together by day and living in the same hotel by night. It was a familiar lifestyle for both--Aaron, then in his thirties, had lived and worked all over the world, and Magali had settled into a pattern of working for two months, visiting her family at home for two weeks and then being sent back out on a new job.

"By the time he left for the States, we were dating," Magali says, "and we stayed in touch. Then I got sick--a simple thing, appendicitis--and when he called my house, my father told him I was in the hospital. The next day, there he was, in Mexico. My family and I all thought, whoa. We were impressed."

While recuperating, Magali agreed to visit Aaron in Colorado. But when she got here, she says, "it was scary, even though I thought I was living an unbelievable story of love. I had learned in English in school, but when I came here, I could not understand one single word. I never had gone to McDonald's to even order a hamburger alone, ever. He said he would handle everything."

The way she remembers it, Aaron suggested they get married right away, that Magali stay in the States and start her new life. Her parents came up for the civil ceremony. ("I couldn't be married Catholic, because Aaron had already been married and divorced," she says. "That would be playing games.") She wore a long white dress. A few months later, Aaron's mother held a reception for the couple at her home in Arkansas. And the new life began.

"He was working in the international area for Ball, and he had to travel," Magali recalls. "He wanted me to travel with him, so we went together--to England, France, China and several places in the U.S. We'd be back in Denver for two months and then go again. I'd traveled before, and I really enjoyed it. It was different, but I knew my life would be different. I was the wife, and that was supposed to make me happy. That's how I grew up, and that's what I knew."

Since it was nearly impossible to rent an apartment in Denver for such short periods--though they did once--the Brunsons usually stayed with Aaron's friend from Ball, Russ Smith, and his Mexican-born wife, Carmen.

"Aaron and I hadn't been that close," Russ says, "but he knew Carmen and I had been through the immigration thing, and Carmen was someone Magali could talk to in her own language. I liked her, and I suspected Aaron had turned around and changed and grown up--although I still had a few doubts, which I mentioned to Carmen."

The doubts, he says, were based on what little he knew of Aaron, who had three children from his first marriage. "He seemed a little immature," Russ remembers. "He struck me kind of like a kid let out to play, doing all that travel. He started thinking he was Mr. International Playboy. But he did seem to love Magali very much at first."

Enough to tell the INS exactly how much, in June 1995, shortly after they married. In addition to providing affidavits from friends stating that this was a marriage of true love rather than of convenience, Aaron also signed an Affidavit of Support, in which he agreed to "receive, maintain and support" Magali, in order that she would "not become a public charge during her stay in the United States." Magali was granted a conditional permanent residence for the next three years, after which the couple was to report back to the INS. Five years after that, if all went well, she could apply for citizenship.

But all did not go well. After the period of international travel--he says it lasted only a few months, she says one and a half years--Aaron was transferred to Brazil.

"We decided it was too expensive to live there, so I went to Mexico to wait for him," Magali says. "I went for a visit, though, and right away, I knew he was having an affair. At least, I had that feeling."

Reunited in Denver for Christmas, the couple argued in between family visits and split up again to return to their respective temporary homes south of the border.

"He went back to Brazil and didn't call me for two weeks," she relates. "I started thinking, okay, this is all my fault, so I came back to Colorado to wait for him. I knew he would be gone another two months, but I thought I would just wait quietly for him, and he would be back and we would spend more time together. But he never called. Then he stopped sending money. I realized--he just left me."

Russ and Carmen Smith, who had offered Magali a room in their house rent-free, decided that their boarder had been abandoned. "Aaron's friends at Ball were calling him in Brazil saying, the thing is, treat her like a human being," Carmen says. "You don't love her, that's okay--just be a man."

"I did call him in Brazil and suggest that he do some counseling or at least try to do the right thing," Russ adds. "By then he had a Brazilian girlfriend, and he wasn't going to help. He said something like, Magali doesn't work or help out--but my thought was, how could she? She has no skills, no car, no money...And she was just heartbroken, not to mention embarrassed to confront her family back home with all this."

Not surprisingly, Aaron's version is different. "Aaron is not the big bad guy here," he says, "no matter what they're all going to tell you." A combination of personal troubles, he says, ranging from Magali's dependence to her unwillingness to find a job or study English led him to conclude that the marriage was over less than six months after it began. That last Christmas, he says, was a formality. At the end of December, he says, "I told her I was going to get a divorce and that she had a ticket back to Mexico. Yes, I found another girlfriend, but nothing said I couldn't once I knew I was going to get a divorce. I'm sorry she had her feelings hurt, but what did I do wrong? She just wouldn't accept it." He was surprised, he adds, when she decided to return to Colorado. "She was always so homesick," he recalls. "I thought she would want to go home."

Instead, Magali decided to learn English--eventually finding a way to teach Spanish to pay for her lessons. Inside of a month, she began work as a bilingual clerk at International Book. Within six months, she'd been promoted to accounts payable, where she stayed until "I couldn't learn anymore," she explains. "Then I thought I'd work in construction, where I was trained." Just to be sure, though, she signed up at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School for courses in the latest drafting techniques.

In February 1998, Magali was hired by Alvarado Construction, which immediately assigned her to a series of jobs in Colorado and California. It didn't take her long to pay the Smiths a nice chunk of back rent and to find a room in the Wheat Ridge house where she still lives today.

"We knew she would make it," Carmen says. "She's a good girl; she makes people love her."

"She made people like her," Aaron agrees bitterly. "They liked her so much at Ball that when they found out I was divorcing her, they fired me because I was ten days late on my corporate Visa payments. It's unbelievable what I've had to go through."

The divorce only made matters more tense--both parties claiming the other "got everything."

"I didn't talk to him. We didn't talk it over," Magali recalls. "He had left me alone and didn't care about me anymore. What was there to talk about? I knew it was not my fault. And at least it was over."

Not quite.
"The three years had gone by, and I went to my immigration hearing," Magali relates. "My lawyer has already sent them a letter about the divorce, and I have letters from my boss, saying I'm not taking anyone's job. From my landlord. From everyone I know. But the first thing they ask me is, 'Where's your husband?' After that, the interview is over. And they start the deportation."

Which, according to immigration law, the INS had every right to do.
Fraudulent marriages aren't exactly unknown in immigrant circles, and a quick divorce is usually a good indication of one. On the other hand, even the INS recognizes that real marriages can fail, so a conditional resident can apply for what's known as a "good faith waiver." If the immigrant can prove the marriage was genuine, he or she can sometimes convince the review court judge to continue the citizenship process.

"When I married this man, I don't work at all for two years. If the marriage isn't real, why would I do such a stupid thing?" Magali wonders. "He expected me to go back to Mexico: I-don't-love-you-anymore-now-go-away, you know? But no one is going to treat me that way. At least, if I can stay, I can learn more English, come back to Mexico with something besides three lost years."

But there's something else holding her here, as she readily admits: Her life has gotten unexpectedly good. Colorado feels like home now. Her job is "top of the line." Her friends, many once Aaron's friends, have all come through in a pinch. "Oh, and where I come from, you can get Mexican food anytime," she says. "But here, they have these wonderful hot wings. I just love them."

Although review court judge David Cordova has yet to enter the courtroom, the direction Magali's case will take is already clear. Dani Page, an INS attorney, is willing to give her sixty days to pull together any evidence of a non-fraudulent marriage. The burden rests on Magali and her lawyer, Berkley Rasband, to prove that the Brunson marriage was real--for as long as it lasted, at least.

Receipts for property the couple held jointly--for apartments rented, houses purchased, bank accounts, credit--will all be useful, the INS lawyer says. Wedding pictures, preferably with a long white dress and a religious leader in attendance, wouldn't hurt, either.

But Magali doesn't have any of this. As a couple the Brunsons rented one apartment, for only a few months. A Ball credit card covered all of their expenses. As for the wedding pictures--she says she sent them to immigration more than a year ago.

"You sent them by mail?" Page asks, incredulous. "Don't ever send anything to immigration by mail. We're a huge agency."

"We have affidavits..." Magali offers.
"That's not as helpful as you might think," Page says, not unkindly.
In the elevator on the way down, Magali's twenty friends and witnesses--none of whom were called upon to speak--begin brainstorming. How about going through Ball's corporate expense records? How about the Mexican relatives--did they take pictures? How about Aaron Brunson--couldn't he testify that once, for a short time, he was in love?

Maybe. "It was a real marriage," Aaron agrees. "It was real, but it fell apart. Two people fell in love and said let's change our lives, and it didn't work out. I'd call a judge and tell him, if I had to. That is, if she'd apologize to me."

Noted, says Magali.
"I won't call him," she says. "I'll do this alone.