Lina Wilburn moved to the United States after falling in love with a man. Then she fell in love with the country. Last month, after nearly five years of living here, the Colombian native was supposed to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen. Days before the ceremony — the last step in a long immigration process — the pregnant woman was hospitalized for contractions that were starting too soon. One of the twin sons growing inside her has a heart defect, and he needed to get bigger to survive a surgery soon after birth.
Lina, 29, really wanted to become an American before she became a mom. But she wasn't allowed to leave her hospital bed.
Maybe she didn't have to, her husband thought.
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Steve Wilburn, 34, went to Colombia to celebrate life.
It was summer 2003, and he and a buddy had both survived three months of flying combat missions in Iraq.
Steve met Lina, an architect and interior designer, vacationing at the same hotel where he stayed in Cartagena. She was sweet and strong-willed. They spent four days together. On a carriage ride through the city, he knew he was in love.
A few months later, he flew back to Colombia to ask Lina's father for permission to marry her.
"She never expected to marry a gringo," he said. "I definitely married up."
The couple now lives in Riverview. On May 28, their four-year anniversary, Lina found out she was pregnant.
"Big surprise," she mused on Friday. "And it was even bigger when we found out there were two."
Their sons, Samuel and Gabriel, are due Feb. 4. Soon after they are born, Samuel will need life-saving surgery to repair an interrupted aortic arch. Steve said doctors have given the couple "super high hopes" about the baby's chances.
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Friday morning, a federal judge and an immigration officer arrived in Lina's room at St. Joseph's Women's Hospital.
A friend of a friend had helped Steve arrange a bedside swearing-in ceremony for his wife, who has now been in the hospital about four weeks.
U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. delivered the Oath of Allegiance to Lina as her mother, visiting from Colombia, and Steve watched. The beaming husband, a technical sergeant in the Air Force who works at MacDill Air Force Base, wore his full service dress blues.
"How are you feeling?" Moody asked after a quick introduction.
"Big," Lina said.
The ceremony took only a minute or so. Lina could feel Gabriel kicking inside her as she raised her right hand and fixed her eyes up toward the judge.
"Let me be the first to congratulate you as a new citizen," Moody said.
Lina took her certificate and smiled. Steve leaned in for a kiss.
Then the father-to-be handed the judge a thank-you card, apologizing that it wasn't enough to show their gratitude.
"It was probably," Steve said, "one of the best Christmas gifts you could have given us."
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337.