Jorge Arreola and Maria Magdalena Ortega Delgado are three years into an involuntary 10-year separation. (Photo: Isaac Daniel Ortega Delgado)
Imagine you can’t be near the person you love. It could be a long-distance relationship or a military deployment. Jorge Arreola and his wife, Maria Magdalena Ortega Delgado, are three years into a 10-year separation. Magda -- everyone calls her Magda -- overstayed a tourist visa, and U.S. immigration law requires her to stay out of the country for a decade before she can apply to return.
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Jorge is a U.S. citizen, who lives in San Jose and works as an equipment engineer at Amphenol Sensors in Fremont. He tries to present a brave face, but he grieves.
Sitting in his home office, surrounded by books and photos of Magda, he says, "I try to keep myself busy. That way, we don’t think about this situation, but it’s hard. You can get to a depression, by just thinking over and over and over, about the same thing.”
Jorge and Magda live much of their marriage in a third place they have created online, using their phone, Facebook Messenger and FaceTime. When I visited him, we connected with Magda on FaceTime so we could all talk together.
Magda, who is 44, went back to a village called Margaritas, population 3,000, about 80 miles east of Guadalajara . She grew up there, and she still has relatives there.
Jorge, 47, does come to visit, every two or three months. Magda often meets him in Tijuana, where Jorge was born, or he flies to Guadalajara, a 3½- to four-hour journey from San Jose.
How Magda Got in Trouble With Immigration Authorities
Magda's father immigrated to the United States legally from Mexico in 1992. Over the years, she visited periodically. When Magda was around 20, she visited and overstayed her tourist visa. Then she left the U.S. for Mexico and returned “without inspection,” which means what you think it means: She crossed the border illegally.
Despite all that, Magda expected to gain papers under her family’s application for green cards, which they eventually acquired. What Magda didn’t realize was that her cross-border travel put her in a precarious situation following a 1996 change in immigration law, designed to penalize people who spent time in the U.S. illegally.
She unwittingly further complicated her status with the U.S. government when she married Jorge in 1994, after meeting him at a church in San Jose. She was no longer her father's child in the eyes of immigration authorities, and no longer qualified to be included in her father's immigration package.
Given that Jorge has been a U.S. citizen since 2008, Jorge and Magda figured they could adjust her immigration status. But after years of attempting to do just that, Magda lost her appeal. Here’s an excerpt from the 2011 Board of Immigration Appeals decision against her:
“The respondent is ineligible for a grant of adjustment of status. … The Immigration Judge additionally concluded that the respondent did not satisfy the 10-year continuous physical presence requirement for cancellation of removal.”
This spelled big trouble for the couple. Magda would have to leave the U.S. for 10 years before she could reapply for entry legally as Jorge’s wife. Magda left voluntarily in April 2012, rather than be arrested and deported by the authorities.
Ironically, when she was in the U.S., Magda worked as the associate producer on an independent film called "Sin Visa." It showcases life in California as an undocumented person.
“It’s like a small village," Magda explains . "Very simple people, but with a very warm and big heart. You are welcome to come anytime you want to!”
Jorge thought about moving to Mexico to be with Magda, but he makes good money in his career here. If he left, he figured he’d be fixing computers at a corner store in Mexico, earning peanuts. Jorge needs the money: The couple has incurred legal debt over the years, trying to adjust Magda's immigration status.
There's another reason. Jorge and Magda don't have children, but their two young goddaughters live in the Bay Area. He and Magda are very close to the girls, who sometimes travel with him to see her in Mexico. He says it would be very hard on the girls if both he and Magda left. Her forced departure is already hard on both of their families. Their former home in Milpitas was the social center where relatives gathered for major holidays.
“Our house, it was like a grandma’s house. Because all my family, all my sisters and brothers, we get together for the feasts, for everything, for the holy days," Magda says. "Now that I’m here, it’s kind of hard. So, last year, I was in charge to do the blessing during the Thanksgiving and Christmas. Well, since I was not with them, I used the iPad and I was able to see each other and the food and I sent my bless[ing] for the food."
She adds: "I love pumpkin pie."
In many ways, the iPad allows Magda to reconnect her family with their roots in Margaritas. Magda gives walking tours around the village, especially during festivals like the Christmas Posadas. But even the day-to-day seems more present than it might otherwise.
“Like, right now, some of the trees are blooming, and they have a little fruits. And I just told [Jorge], ‘Look, look at what I’m eating.’ Or, the people is passing by, I say, ‘Look. Say ‘hi’ to my husband.’ They say, ‘This is your husband? -- 'Hi, how you doing?' ”
Magda and Jorge attend Mass together sometimes at the local church in Margaritas, "Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion," or "Our Lady of the Assumption." Magda got permission from the priest to have Jorge join her, via her iPad, when the church Wi-Fi is working.
Jorge is in a rondallas group, a Spanish guitar group. He plays for Magda and records songs for her birthday. I asked him to play something for her, and he chose a piece from a song called “Yolanda,” famously sung by Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanes. Musicians performed this song at Jorge and Magda's wedding 21 years ago.
As Jorge strummed the guitar and sang, “Te amo, te amo, eternamente te amo,” Magda joined him, singing in unison through cyberspace.
“Our souls are together," she tells him. "I know when you are sick; I can feel that. I know when you are sad; I can feel that, too. And I know that you do the same thing. And I just want to tell you that. It is not easy."
Then they sign off, like they do every day.
Jorge: “I love you, Mama.”
Magda: “I love you too, Papa. Bye, have a nice day.”
Jorge: “You, too.”
And then they disconnect.
This podcast features music by Explosions in the Sky: "Hello!" with David Wingo, and "Be Comfortable, Creature"