They got to the Tampa airport early that Saturday and gathered around Gate F, watching for the tram from the terminal.
“What time is it?” asked Gabriel, 9.
“Is she here yet?” asked Manuel, 12.
“I’m nervous,” said Julia, 15. “I still don’t believe this is happening.”
Victor Becerra, 41, untangled a bouquet of balloons and handed one to each of his kids. They also had made posters, rimmed with gold glitter: “We missed you guys!” And “Welcome back Mom!”
“Isn’t it crazy?” said Victor. “The last time we were here, when she left, she went through that same door.”
“What time is it?” Gabriel asked again. “When is she coming?”
Maria Martinez Rivera, 34, had been apart from her husband, three oldest children and her home in Clearwater for almost two years.
She had flown back to Mexico in April 2018, with their baby, Aaron, to try to get a visa, so she could right her wrong — and become a U.S. citizen, like her husband and children.
All she had to do, a lawyer had told her, was fill out forms, pay a fine and have an interview at the U.S. consulate in Juarez.
There, she admitted that she had walked across the border illegally in 2003. She told officials she had lived in Florida for almost half her life, never getting into trouble.
Then someone asked if her family had received food stamps. She got scared and lied.
Victor works full-time building custom trailers, making $14.75 an hour, so his children had been getting public assistance. But Maria was banned from coming back into the United States because immigration officers feared she would become a “public charge.”
The provision to keep out poor people had been on the books for decades but never applied.
Soon, the “public charge” policy made headlines: President Trump wanted it enforced.
Maria got tangled in the maze of shifting immigration rules — and stuck in Mexico.
In early August, the Tampa Bay Times published a story about Victor and Maria, chronicling how Victor had cancelled the kids’ food stamps, figured out how to cook hot dogs and sold their furniture to send money to Maria, who was living with her brother’s family. Every night, the three oldest children ate on the floor of their apartment, then FaceTimed with their mom and baby brother.
The twins were born Aug. 20, the product of a Christmas visit to Mexico at the end of 2018. “Now I have to figure out how to get all three of them out,” Victor said.
Hundreds of other families, he knew, were in much worse situations. He just wanted to make his family whole again.
If Maria couldn’t come back to Clearwater, Victor decided that their three oldest children would have to leave the only home they have known -- and move to Mexico. He told Maria, “I will only be happy when we are together.”
Victor’s boss set up a GoFundMe account, which raised $7,500 to help pay medical bills and buy school supplies.
Congressman Charlie Crist, D-FL, saw the story and offered to help. His staff scheduled another interview at the U.S. consulate in Mexico for Maria and told her which forms to fill out. They expedited U.S. passports for the twins.
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“I’m the grandson of immigrants,” Crist emailed. “When I heard Victor and Maria’s story, I saw my own family -- two parents working hard to make a better life for themselves and their children. That’s the American dream, and it’s families like theirs that make our country stronger.”
Crist wrote that there’s much to do to fix problems in the immigration system, but this case served as an example of how government can and should work.
On Nov. 4, Maria finally got a visa.
At the airport, they watched women in holiday sweaters, men in college hoodies and small dogs on leashes stream by.
“Nothing,” said Gabriel, batting at his balloon.
“Where is she?” asked Manuel, spinning the posters.
Julia bit her nails, still worried something was going to go wrong.
At 3:15 p.m., Victor checked the arrivals board, then ran back to his kids. “She just landed!”
More shuttles, filled with more strangers, emptied into the airport. “The next one will be it,” Gabriel said.
“That’s what you said about the last three,” said Manuel. Then he screamed, dropped the posters, and ran. “Mom! Mama! Mami!”
Maria was cradling one of the twins in a pink blanket and holding 2-year-old Aaron’s hand. Manuel tried to hug his mom. But his little brother jumped into his arms.
Victor leaned in and gave Maria a long kiss. Gabriel grabbed her knees.
“We made it!” Maria said, lifting her glasses to wipe her eyes. “We’re really here.”
Victor’s sister had flown with Maria from Mexico, to help with the babies. She was holding the other twin.
As everyone crowded around Maria, her oldest walked over and stroked the infant’s dark hair. Julia had always wanted a sister.
Maria lingered on the threshold of her apartment, looking around.
The kids had filled the living room with balloons and draped paper streamers around all the doorways. Victor had bought a used dining-room table that seats eight.
“It’s the same,” Maria said. “But all the furniture is different.”
“We are so blessed,” Victor said. He’s still afraid to accept food stamps or any public assistance that might jeopardize Maria’s visa. “We’ll make do,” he said. “We’ll do it together.”
While the boys bounced balloons off each other, and Julia held baby Victoria, Victor led Maria into their bedroom, carrying Camila, the other twin. “This is for you,” he said, lowering the infant into a new wooden crib. His boss’s wife had given them money for a nursery.
Maria saw the giraffe poster, the elephant mobile, the animal quilt — and wept.
A few minutes later, Victor called everyone around the table and poured champagne for the adults, sparkling apple juice for the kids. “Thank you to God, and to all the angels he put in our path,” he said, raising a plastic glass. He draped his arm around Maria’s shoulders. “My dream came true.”
“It feels like yesterday I left this place,” she said.
“Not for me,” said Victor. “It’s been a long, long time.”
Maria took Victoria from Julia, then walked into the living room, crouched down and touched the baby’s foot to the floor. “There. Now, you’re home,” she said softly. “We’re home.”
Dan Linden, Victor Becerra’s boss, has set up an account to collect donations for the family.