TAMPA -- They cried at the airport, huddled by the tram to the terminal, choking on their good-byes.
“I love you!”
“I’ll miss you, Mama!”
Maria Martinez Rivera, then 33, shouldered her backpack and wiped her eyes. She had not been apart from her husband in 16 years, not since she left Mexico and came to Clearwater to be with him. She had never been away from their children, not even for a night.
She was taking the baby with her; 6-month-old Aaron was strapped to her chest. Her other children, ages 14, 10 and 8, clung to her.
On that morning in late April 2018, she didn’t want to leave.
But she knew, for her family to move forward, she had to go back.
“We have to make it right,” her husband said. “Don’t worry. You’re going to get those papers and this will all be over.
“We’ll see you soon.”
She was supposed to be gone for a month. Just enough time to fill out forms, have an interview at a U.S. consulate in Mexico and get the visa that would allow her to live in the U.S. -- legally.
For years, she had been trying to obtain a green card. So she could get a driver’s license. Go to night school. Become a nurse. Earn money to send her kids to college.
This was the first step.
“The lawyer told us it would be no problem at all,” said Maria’s husband, Victor Becerra. “I’m a U.S. citizen. The kids all are citizens. We just had to pay the fines and do the paperwork.”
But when Maria got to Juarez, her visa was denied.
She’s now been away from her family for more than a year -- trapped in an immigration maze where the rules are changing.
She has no idea if she’ll ever be allowed back in the U.S.
Her husband is trying to figure out how to help her.
Her kids just want her to come home.
“They keep asking me, ‘Why don’t you bring her back?’ ” Victor said. “It’s devastating, heart-breaking.”
He’s not asking for sympathy. Some people, he’s sure, will be critical.
And he knows hundreds of families have been separated at the border, suffering much worse fates.
But he wants everyone to know this can happen. It is happening.
For years, Maria had flown under the radar -- illegally in the U.S. but invisible to authorities. No one was looking for her.
When she tried to make things right, everything went wrong.
Victor grew up in San Luis Potosi, about 260 miles northwest of Mexico City, the second youngest of 13 children. His dad travelled back and forth to the United States, prepping food in restaurants, washing dishes, sending most of his wages home.
When Victor was 16, his dad finally got a green card and papers to bring his wife and six youngest children to Florida. Victor learned English quickly, graduated from Countryside High, got a job at Publix, then an apartment with his brother.
He was 25 when he went back to Mexico to see family in early 2003. A friend took him to a party on the block where Victor had grown up. There, beneath the stars, he saw her salsa dancing in the street. “A beautiful dancer,” he said. “A beautiful girl.”
Maria had dark eyes and long, wavy black hair. She was 18.
They danced and talked and watched the sun rise.
When he got back to Florida, he called her whenever he could afford it and wrote every week. Six months later, he returned to Mexico to marry her.
He told her it could take a while for them to be together, but he promised he would start the paperwork.
Maria didn’t want to wait.
A month later, she called her new husband. She had taken a bus to Nuevo Laredo. Someone who knew someone had given her a phone number.
At the depot, she met a stranger -- a “coyote” -- who charged her $2,000 and, in the middle of the night, showed her and two other Mexicans where to safely walk across the border.
Maria had only gotten a few steps into Texas when officers caught her. They took her fingerprints, moved her to a U.S. detention center for the night, then told her to go back to Mexico.
Three days later, she tried again.
“I made it,” she said when she called Victor. “I’m here.”
He picked her up in a park. She was exhausted and excited and hadn’t brought anything, not even a backpack. “It was the greatest thing to have her with me,” he said. “That was happiness.”
They didn’t worry about the consequences, or plan for what came next. They were young and in love and together. On the long drive to his Clearwater apartment, they laughed and sang in his pick-up.
The next year, their first child was born: Julia.
Victor got a new job, building custom trailers. A new apartment, across from the warehouse where he works. And an interview, with immigration officials.
On Dec. 12, 2007 -- 13 years after moving to the U.S. -- Victor became a citizen. He took Maria to a Chinese buffet to celebrate. “Her favorite food,” he laughed.
That night, he slid the certificate into a thick, black frame and hung it on his bedroom wall where he sees it first thing every morning and last thing every night.
Of everything he’s done, he said, he is most proud of that.
Over the next decade, Victor and Maria talked to a dozen immigration lawyers. They spent more than $10,000 trying to navigate the complicated process. Maria petitioned for “alien relative status.”
They waited. And prayed. And waited some more.
They had two sons, Manuel and Gabriel. Maria took English classes and looked after the kids. Victor kept working full-time for Express Trailers, where he makes $14.75 an hour -- about $30,000 a year.
“Victor is one of the most reliable employees I have,” said general manager Dan Linden, who has worked with him for a decade. “He never complains. No one even knew about his situation here. He’s just an honest, hard-working, family-focused father who’s trying to take care of his kids the best he can.”
In early 2017, Victor and Maria met with an attorney from Catholic Charities, who helped them fill out form 1601A: a “provisional unlawful presence waiver.” If immigration officials accepted it, she could get a visa and apply for a green card.
Another son -- baby Aaron -- was born that September.
Two months later, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security approved Maria’s application for a waiver. All she had to do was take her health records and family income tax returns to U.S. officials in Juarez.
The earliest interview she could get was six months away.
As soon as Maria’s plane took off that morning, Victor and the kids started planning a party for when she returned. They’d have a picnic in a park, with balloons and all sorts of pastries. And a Magic Marker poster saying, “Welcome Home, Mama!”
Victor was at work, on May 22, 2018, when Maria called. She had just left the consulate.
She was sobbing.
He couldn’t tell if her tears were happy or sad. It took her awhile to cough out the words: “What are we going to do? We’ll never be together again.”
At the interview, Maria had told officials she had crossed into the U.S. illegally. Twice. She told them she had lived in Florida for nearly half her life. Her husband and four children all are American citizens.
She said she has never been arrested. Doesn’t drink or do drugs. She told them she was trying to make up for her past, so her kids can have a better future.
Then an interviewer asked whether she got food stamps in the U.S. “And she got scared,” Victor said.
Maria had heard that President Trump didn’t want immigrants like her getting public assistance. “So she lied,” Victor said. “And, of course, they knew the kids had gotten help.”
Victor and Maria haven’t talked to a lawyer since her visa was denied. They don’t have money to hire one. They aren’t really sure what to do.
People who came into the U.S. illegally travel back to their native countries so that American embassies there can forgive their “unlawful presence,” said St. Petersburg immigration attorney Ahmad M. Yakzan. “If they find other reasons you’re inadmissible, they can require another waiver.”
The form Maria got from immigration officials said she was denied under provision 212(a)(4) -- public charge.
“That’s a new thing,” Yakzan said. “Even if your kids are U.S. citizens, if you don’t have an income, they fear you will become a public charge.”
Though Maria’s husband works full-time -- and pays taxes to support public assistance programs -- she was banned from coming back into the U.S. because her family got food stamps.
That rule has been on the books for decades, lawyers said, but recently, the interpretation has changed. Officials now are barring people who received any government help rather than trying to determine if they might become totally dependent on public assistance.
“In 20 years, the government has never enforced this. Ever.,” said Shirley Sadjadi, an immigration lawyer in Elgin, Ill. “It’s just one more obstacle to the immigrant becoming a citizen, or even getting back into the country.”
Sadjadi has never met Victor or Maria. But when she heard their story, she said: “Are you kidding me? This guy is a U.S. citizen. He has four U.S. kids.
“I can’t even imagine what he must be going through.”
On school days, Victor rose at 5 a.m. to wake the kids, feed them breakfast and get them to their bus stops. He built trailers all day in the hot warehouse, where some co-workers wear ball caps saying, “Make America Great Again” and listen to Rush Limbaugh radio.
He got home just in time to pick up his children and try to figure out what to do about dinner. He didn’t know how to cook. He couldn’t afford to take them out to eat. He has been sending Maria $200 a month for her and the baby.
And if Maria gets a chance to apply for another visa, he wants to prove he and the kids haven’t been getting food stamps. So he cancelled their public assistance, bought cases of Ramen noodles at the Dollar Store and learned to make hot dogs. His kids, he said, are sick of hot dogs.
“The baby got bad in Mexico, and needed special formula, so I had to sell our furniture to send Maria more money,” he said. For months, he and the kids sat on the floor to eat. Finally, someone gave them another table.
Maria missed her children’s birthdays. She didn’t get to see an art exhibit that included Julia’s drawings or help Manuel build his toy starship. Without his mom, Gabriel stopped speaking Spanish. Without his siblings, Aaron has grown up never hearing English.
The family FaceTimes every night before bed.
“It’s been so terrible for all of us. But especially for Julia,” Victor said. “She had to grow up fast.”
Julia is 15, a rising sophomore and honor student in Gibbs High School’s art program. She wants to be a fashion designer and fills sketch pads with ideas for dresses.
For the last 15 months, she has cared for her two brothers, helping with their homework, reading to them. She misses her baby brother. And especially her mother.
She hasn’t told her friends. She doesn’t want to open herself — or her family — to judgment.
“All the responsibilities, not having my mom for emotional support, it’s been hard,” she said. But the worst part? “Not knowing what’s going to happen.”
“Overwhelmed. Panicky. Vulnerable. Worried. Sad.”
That’s how Tampa psychologist Ruben Aloyo described Victor, after Maria had been gone a month. He recommended that the couple be considered a hardship case and wrote immigration officials a report, saying they should allow Maria to return to her family.
In the summer of 2018, Maria applied for another interview, trying again to get a waiver. Then they waited.
At Christmas, Victor took the oldest kids to see her in Mexico — a 27-hour drive. Maria is living with her brothers, in a house without hot water, air conditioning or heat. The electricity often goes out.
Soon after Victor got back to Clearwater, he had two more things to worry about: Though Maria had been taking birth control pills, she was pregnant — with twin girls. They’re due the last week of September.
“I wanted to get her out of Mexico in time for them to be born in the United States,” Victor said. “But soon, it will be too late for her to travel.”
This summer, he sent the kids to stay with their mother. To cheer her up, to help with toddler Aaron. And to get a feeling for what it’s like to live in Mexico.
He hasn’t talked to them about that possibility — not yet. They have never lived anywhere but Clearwater.
Two weeks ago, Maria got word that her application for a second waiver has been approved. She doesn’t have a date for the next interview, but the form she filled out said it won’t be before December -- months after the twins are born.
“Everything is really delayed right now. The processing is so slow,” said Sadjadi, the Illinois attorney. “Four years ago, if this happened in the old system, you could get a new interview in a month.”
Victor left for Mexico on Friday, to bring the oldest kids back to Florida to start school.
“I don’t want to be apart,” Maria told Victor via FaceTime recently, wiping tears. “Having our family together is more important than wherever we are.”
“I will only be happy when we are together,” Victor agreed. “Even if we have nothing to eat but cactus and beans.”
Victor and Maria know they might have to make a choice. If she can’t come back, he and the kids have to go.
Dan Linden, Victor Becerra’s boss, has set up an account to collect donations to help the family.