Last November, Madison residents Laura Braun and Roberto LÃpez went to see a football game in Buffalo, N.Y. But then the couple made a terrible mistake ' crossing briefly into Canada during a side trip to Niagara Falls.
When Lopez, 29, tried to cross back, he was arrested, and later deported.
No one disputes that the Mexican-born LÃpez, now Braun's fiancÃ, was in the country illegally. But he was working and paying taxes, and his ordeal underscores the human toll of the latest wave of anti-immigrant fervor.
'The way the system is now, we don't know if or when Roberto will be able to return to the U.S.,' says Braun, 24, a recent UW-Madison graduate who now works for a university administrative program. 'I think most people believe a U.S. citizen should be free to marry whomever you want to marry, and while there may be consequences to that, as with anyone who breaks a law, current immigration policies go too far.'
Braun and LÃpez became engaged at the TeotihuacÃn ruins outside Mexico City in December, when Braun went to visit. They don't know when or if they will be able to have a life together in the U.S.
Due to LÃpez's illegal presence and deportation, the couple must file two waivers, in addition to their fiancÃ visa application. The waiver process can cause additional delays of a year or more.
To be approved, Braun must demonstrate, with documentation, that it would be an extreme hardship to her if LÃpez cannot return. A denial would mean he would be banned from the U.S. for 10 years.
And it all started with a trip to see a football game.
Despite coming from a country where soccer is king, LÃpez was attracted to American football at an early age. Liking an underdog, he became a Bills fan after seeing them lose to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVII.
LÃpez's father died when he was 6, leaving his mother to provide for him and his younger siblings. He eventually dropped out of school to help support his family.
'I looked around when I was 21 or 22 years old, and realized I had to do something,' says LÃpez, in a phone interview from Mexico. He decided, like millions of other Mexicans, to cross the border to live and work in the United States.
LÃpez arrived in Madison in the spring of 2000, and soon realized he needed to learn English to survive in the new culture. He took classes at MATC, studied hard and practiced with people he met at work.
'I think he's one of those people who just had to learn English because he loves to talk and tell stories,' says Braun. 'Not being able to communicate is like having his leg cut off.'
The couple met salsa dancing at the Cardinal Bar in 2005, shortly before Braun graduated from the UW-Madison.
'Before I met Roberto, I had started to see [more] immigrants in Madison,' says Braun, who grew up in central Wisconsin. 'When I found out he was undocumented, it didn't change my feelings for him. If anything, the fact that his life experience was so different than anything I had experienced made him more interesting to me.'
By 2006, LÃpez was functionally bilingual, working a steady custodial job with good benefits. He and Braun had rented an apartment off Park Street in Madison and were shopping for engagement rings.
The couple arrived in Buffalo on the Friday after Thanksgiving; the Bills game was on Sunday. On Saturday, they visited Niagara Falls.
Braun had seen LÃpez's eyes light up when people they met raved about the view of Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. Everyone assured them that all they needed to cross into Canada and re-enter the U.S. were valid driver's licenses, which both had. (Under a new state law, effective April 1, applicants for licenses and license renewals must verify their legal immigration status.)
'It's almost embarrassing to tell it, we were so stupid, and it all happened so fast,' says Braun. 'We were standing on the American side, looking at some of the lesser falls, but Roberto was fixated on the bridge into Canada. It was like his brain totally shut off, and he went toward the bridge.'
LÃpez has a similar recollection. 'I felt so free and happy to be there,' he says. 'I wanted to have a good time with Laura. I forgot in that time that I was a 'wetback,' different than all the other people around me.'
The couple headed for the bridge. LÃpez passed through the gate. At the Canadian border patrol station, they were asked where they were born. Braun said Wisconsin; LÃpez said Mexico.
LÃpez was asked proof of legal residency. All he had was his Wisconsin driver's license. He was turned away with a document saying he had been refused entry into Canada. The couple headed back across the bridge toward the U.S. border patrol station, with a rising sense of dread.
'It was a crowded area,' Braun recalls. 'There were a lot of people waiting to get back into the U.S. The agent asked for his name and date of birth to see if he came up in her computer. When he didn't, she became very loud and aggressive.
'She shouted, 'You're an illegal Mexican, aren't you?' and threatened Roberto and I, saying I could be arrested for smuggling someone into the country.'
LÃpez was taken into a holding room, and questioned for more than three hours. Braun waited outside, trying to learn what would happen. One agent mistakenly told her LÃpez would be allowed out on bond after a few days.
Eventually, LÃpez was taken to the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, N.Y. He was held for just under a month before being flown to Brownsville, Texas, and dropped off on the Mexican side of the border.
During his time in Batavia, LÃpez says he met men from Pakistan, Ghana, Mexico, Kosovo and Morocco. Some had been there for years, awaiting paperwork from their home countries or for flights to take them back.
When he left the detention facility, LÃpez and other detainees were shackled and handcuffed, their wrists chained to their waists. The guards charged with moving them wore latex gloves so as not to touch them directly.
'I know they have the right to deport me, but we were treated like we had rabies, like we were dirty,' says LÃpez. 'When Americans come to Mexico, they do not need money or property or anything, and we welcome them, but when a Mexican comes to the U.S., he is treated with suspicion.'
Braun had planned to start graduate school at UW-Madison in the fall; now she's unsure what she'll do. LÃpez, meanwhile, doesn't know if he'll ever reclaim his former life.
'I miss my home a lot,' LÃpez says about Madison. '[The U.S.] is my home because I was able to go to school and learn English. I feel lucky, because although I am here in Mexico, I carry a piece of Wisconsin in my heart, my fiancÃe Laura Braun.'