Longform

Law and Border

Page 2 of 6

Marcos joined Lilian in California on a tourist visa. He overstayed it, but after the couple married in San Diego in 1997, Lilian petitioned for a green card for her new, undocumented husband. Two years later, when Lilian became a U.S. citizen, her status made her husband automatically eligible for that card.

While working as a paralegal, Lilian decided to resurrect her own practice of the law. California allows foreign-certified attorneys to take the state bar exam without attending a U.S. law school, but Lilian wanted to learn more about the American legal system before she took the test. She started a program that would earn her a master's in comparative law.

When Marcos got a job offer from a Denver advertising agency, he moved to Colorado. Lilian finished her master's, then followed her husband. But soon after she arrived, so did Marcos's green card -- and he split, taking the card with him.

Marcos wasn't the first man to leave Lilian.

Back in Argentina, her father had left when she was little. Although the family had been well off at one point, she remembers waking up one day in the small room where she shared a bed with her mother and her older sister, and knowing there was nothing but bread for breakfast.

When she was a teenager, Lilian tracked down her father. He told her he was an attorney, but Lilian did some detective work and found out that he was the equivalent of a paralegal. She switched her studies to law in order to get a degree with her father's last name -- De Falco -- on it. She saw it as a way to connect with him.

Lilian had always been close with her mother, and she'd already petitioned for her mother to join her. After Marcos moved out, Lilian's mother moved in. She helped Lilian to see the split as a blessing.

The 36-year-old Latina was now thrice divorced. Although drinking good wine is one of many pleasures in her life, she didn't like the Denver bar scene. A friend suggested she try Internet dating, so she posted an ad. "And I got 700 responses," Lilian remembers. "You have no idea how much fun it was those two or three months. It was fun, fun, fun."

In retrospect, Lilian knows that Marcos's leaving was one of the best things that could have happened to her. She lost some weight, regained her self-esteem, and now had 700 men at her fingertips. So many that she let co-workers at the law firm where she now worked as a paralegal help respond.

Marty Shea was one of the first men to write to Lilian, and one of about ten that she met face to face.

She wasn't sold on Marty -- she calls him by his Spanish name, pronounced Mar-teen -- on their first date. He's a triathlete, and her friends warned her that iron men are self-centered. But on their next date, when the couple sought refuge from the rain under a tree in Civic Center Park, Lilian told Marty about all the obstacles to her dream of becoming a lawyer -- and he told her that if he could complete the Iron Man competition, a dream of his, she could surely become a lawyer.

"I'm going to make all of your dreams come true," Marty told Lilian. She believed him.

In order to take the bar in Colorado, Lilian would have to graduate from a law school in this country. After seven years of law school in Argentina and getting a master's in California, more school didn't appeal to her. Neither did more law-school debt. She could still take the bar in California, though, and while passing that wouldn't let her practice in Colorado's state courts, she would be able to practice federal law in any state.

In 2002, Marty and Lilian married. For the first time, Lilian took a husband's last name. She also had her first child, a baby boy. And then she hit the books.

Marty, a software developer for the city, borrowed one of those books from Denver County Judge Kathleen Bowers. Lilian decided to return the book in person: She knew she needed a study buddy to pass the California bar, and who better than a judge?

The two bonded immediately. The judge helped Lilian prepare for the bar, and in the process got to brush up on her Spanish. They became family, as so many people who cross paths with Lilian do. "She is phenomenal," the judge says. "She is just amazing. She is the most dedicated, driven person I know, and she had the intelligence to pick up on a mountain of information."

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Luke Turf