I’m the Wife of a Hungarian Immigrant. This is My Story.

Over the weekend, I celebrated my 7th wedding anniversary. Actually, I celebrated my 6th and 7th wedding anniversaries. You see, the first time I married my husband, it was at the Davidson County Clerk’s office, just over 9 months to the day that I met him. The second time I married him, it was exactly one year later.

It was the wedding I had always dreamed of: a colorful affair, pledging my love to my husband before God, family and friends. The reason we got married twice? Well, it’s a long story, but here’s the shortened version of it (which is still very long).

We met at a Christmas party that was put on by the Diocese of Nashville. We both belonged to different churches in the area and happened to be seated at the same table. Three days later, we had our first date. A few weeks into our relationship, my (now) husband confessed to me that he was in the country illegally because he had overstayed his visa.

He had come to the country legally seven years earlier on a sports visa as a triathlete. Having little knowledge of the immigration system and a mostly negative perception of illegal immigrants, I asked him to explain more about the situation. What happened next was a series of long, serious, confusing discussions about his options, which, I now know was really only one option- marriage.

The immigration system in our country is complicated, to say the least. Becoming a citizen- or even a legal resident- is an expensive, lengthy process. After deciding to stay in the relationship and continue to learn about the risks to my husband if he stayed in the U.S. illegally, both of our worlds got turned upside down.

One of the things we love doing together is traveling; particularly taking road trips. And several months after dating, we were headed back to Nashville after visiting my family on the west coast. We were approaching a border patrol stop in Sierra Blanca, TX, when we got a bit nervous. My husband was driving, and while we both “look” the part of American citizens, his thick Hungarian accent definitely gives away his foreign status. As we slowed the car to a stop, the agent asked if we were both U.S. citizens. I can’t even remember if we tried to lie, but we ended up being asked to come inside of the station.

My nerves were all over the place. I was so nervous that I had to use the restroom. I asked one of the men where it was, and he said I needed to be escorted. So while I released my nerves as a stranger stood outside the door, the other men interrogated my husband and asked him questions. Questions about when he came to the country, how he came to the country, how he knew me and others that could possibly incriminate him. Eventually they realized that he was in the country illegally, and informed us both that they were taking him in.

I can’t even begin to describe how I felt in that moment. What does that mean, “take him in?” If I tell them we’re getting married (we had talked about it throughout our relationship), will they let him go? Can I stick around and talk to them more? I asked one of the men to clarify, and he said, “He’s going to be deported and can’t come back here for ten years.” The weight of that statement was too heavy to bear. Upon telling the men I needed to make a phone call, I was told that I had to leave and then I could do so.

Leave? I thought. And go where? We had several of our bags, our laptop, food, and everything else you take on a road trip in the car. We still had a few days left of driving before we reached home, and I was in some town called Sierra Blanca that was not exactly a thriving metropolis. As a young woman, the thought of driving back home on my own, especially given my emotional state, was concerning to me. I couldn’t fly back home because the amount of stuff that I had was way more than two carry-on bags, and the rental car company wanted to charge me $1,000 to return the vehicle, since it was not the same location where the car was picked up.

My mother ended up flying into El Paso from California and the two of us drove back to Nashville together. As we did this, I was on the phone 24/7 with family, friends and lawyers, keeping everyone up to date on what was happening. (I still couldn’t believe what was happening.) I hired a lawyer in El Paso, and my husband spent several weeks (maybe more) in the detention center there. We spoke daily, him asking me about what the lawyer was going to do, when I could get the money to get him out of there. He had to move out of the place he was staying, and I sold a bunch of his belongings in order to pay for the lawyer and other expenses.

When he finally got released, he took a Greyhound bus home. During the ride, he wrote his marriage proposal and made me an engagement ring out of a $1 bill. It was all he could afford at the time.

While he was detained, I had to decide whether or not to say yes when he asked me to marry him. I had several concerns about marrying him. One, I questioned (for most of our relationship) if his love for me was genuine, or if he only wanted to marry me to get legal status. Also, we had only known each other nine months, and that’s not very long to really get to know someone. In the end, I decided I would rather risk regretting my decision later, than regret losing him forever and never knowing “what could have been.”

We got married at the first chance we had, but still had a lot of work to do. He was still at risk of being deported, and since the process of gaining legal status is so complicated, it took over two years for everything to get done- paperwork filed, fees paid, steps taken. In order to prove that our marriage was not fraudulent, we had to be interviewed. Yes, interviewed. We were each asked questions about the other, about our relationship and about why we got married. We then had to go before an immigration judge to state our case as to why my husband should be allowed to remain in the U.S. I was pregnant with our first child at the time, so of course this was terrifying. The judge agreed that deporting my husband would cause great despair to me and our unborn child, and since my husband has no criminal record, he was granted a green card. We’ve now been married for 7 years (or 6, depending how you look at it) and my husband is eligible to apply for citizenship if he desires.

What I’ve learned through all of this is that there needs to be immigration reform in this country. There needs to be an easier, less expensive way to become a U.S. citizen. The fear, the costs, the uncertainty I felt, no one should have to go through that. Because of the way things happened in my relationship, I was robbed of the chance to enjoy being engaged. I never took a honeymoon. I understand that I made the choice to risk being with my husband, but it’s hard not to when you know the only other choice is to lose someone forever.

Leena Kollar

(We re-published this article with the permission of the author. The original appeared in 2017.)

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