Law and Border

Immigration is personal to Lilian Shea. She understands it as no citizen of the United States can. But immigration's so close to her heart that she doesn't quite grasp the magnitude of the animosity surrounding the issue today.

"I understand immigrants and I understand citizens," she says. "I understand black and I understand white. I understand the devil and I understand God. It's upsetting that they keep crossing the border, and it's upsetting that they don't respect our laws in America -- because I didn't do it. I came legally. It would have never crossed my mind to do something illegal to gain something. On the other hand, you have a choice: You risk your life in the desert or you starve to death because there's no chance in Mexico.

"I understand Maria and I understand Jose, who come to clean or pick the cotton because Americans don't like to do it. Those Americans that really hate this, I would like to have them here and ask, 'Well, will you come and clean my house?' I'll bet you that 99 percent will say no."

At first American culture seemed cold to Lilian. She'd come to this country on a whim at 27, recruited by a California-based sensor-manufacturing company. They'd scooped her up fresh out of law school in Argentina, hoping she'd represent them in South America someday. She rented out her condo in Buenos Aires, said goodbye to her mother and sister, and started chasing the dream that Hollywood exports around the world, of living in neighborhoods of matching houses in the 'burbs, of speaking English on picnics with the family.

As she learned the language, Lilian was also to learn the company, including all the technicalities of sensor design. The subject bored her, and she had trouble picking it up. The company asked her to consider going to school to learn more about engineering, but she refused. She hated the job.

Life outside of work wasn't much fun, either.

Lilian felt alone until she met Dwayne, who lived in her neighborhood and spoke Spanish. A photographer, he took pictures of her all the time, like she was a model. Lilian was flattered. Within a few months, she'd quit her job and married Dwayne. Although she'd entered the country on a work visa, she now became a permanent resident of the United States because Dwayne was a U.S. citizen.

The marriage, Lilian's second, was rocky from the start. Dwayne kept Lilian's green card and threatened to have her deported, even though he had no actual power to do so. One day, when he was out of town on a photo assignment and Lilian was at the house studying English, two young men from Argentina showed up at the door. They were friends of a friend back home. While the three spent an all-American day at Magic Mountain, Lilian remembered all she was missing about her native land.

Dwayne and Lilian tried to work through their problems, but she had Argentina on the brain. She scheduled a trip back home, just a visit, but in the back of her mind was the possibility of leaving Dwayne and her life in the U.S forever. "I didn't know where I was," Lilian remembers. "I just needed to get out."

The possibility became reality. Lilian called Dwayne from Argentina, and they ended the marriage five months after they'd taken their vows.

In Argentina, Lilian got a call from Marcos, one of the young men she'd entertained in California. They went out dancing with friends, then started dating. Marcos constantly asked Lilian about the U.S., where life could be so much better for them. She wanted to make Marcos happy, and finally agreed to go back to California.

In 1994, Lilian called the U.S. embassy and arranged a pass to the U.S. to collect her things. If a green-card holder leaves the country for more than a year, the government can take the position that residency has been abandoned and the green card forfeited. Lilian was just on the edge of that time period, and Dwayne had not only kept her green card, but had written letters to immigration officials blasting her. She had to prove that she hadn't married him just to stay in the country. But Lilian won -- she told the truth, and immigration officers are good at detecting lies, she says. She was allowed to return and was issued a new green card.

Back in California, Lilian first found a job delivering pizzas, then as a manager of a trucking company, where she mostly spoke Spanish. She realized she needed to speak English if she was going to stay in this country, though, and took a receptionist job -- from which she was soon fired. She started working as a Spanish-speaking paralegal, and had a fit when she misinterpreted a note that one of her bosses had left on a file she'd messed up. The note read "Live and learn," but Lilian read it as "Leave and learn."