By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2000; Page B01
Apolinario and Joanna Sorto will long remember their first wedding anniversary as the bittersweet day they kissed goodbye, not knowing when the law would allow him to return to her side.
With the future so uncertain, their parting was wrenching.
They kept repeating how much they love each other, as their hands linked across the velvet rope guiding passengers at Dulles International Airport to a Taca Airlines flight to El Salvador, the country Apolinario, 21, left four years ago before slipping illegally into the United States looking for a job.
His 19-year-old wife, who barely spoke a word of Spanish when she met the man she would elope with after a three-month courtship, twiddled with the gold heart-shaped locket Apolinario gave her as an anniversary present. His photograph is tucked in one half, and the other half holds a simple message: "I love you."
"You'd think that most people would recognize if you're married and separated from your spouse, it's the hardest thing in the world," said a tearful Joanna after Apolinario embraced her and then disappeared through the gate's door.
They expect it will be months, if not years, before they are reunited.
The newlyweds have been torn asunder by complex and tough immigration laws affecting thousands of families across the country. Under the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, Sorto is barred from reentering the United States for as long as 10 years because he lived here undocumented for more than 12 months.
Immigration lawyers say this kind of case underscores the need to change the lengthy ban and revive a law allowing immigrants to apply for changes in their immigration status while waiting in the United States, instead of in their native countries.
That's how it used to work under a four-year experimental program that was allowed to expire in 1998. Undocumented immigrants could pay a $1,000 fine and wait in the United States while the government processed their paperwork. The provision generated as much as $250 million a year in penalties.
Supporters of strict immigration laws say the program was essentially a reward for undocumented immigrants. "How can we expect to stop illegal immigration if all we do is tell people it's okay they broke the law and we'll give them what they came to get," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "It's like giving a bank robber a free pass and letting him keep the money."
When undocumented immigrants didn't have to leave the United States to apply to live and work here, it essentially nullified the reentry bans established under the 1996 act--three years for people who lived here illegally more than six months and 10 years for those here more than a year.
"People have to pay the price," said Mark Kirkorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "It's not like this guy was kidnapped and brought to the United States to work."
No one knows how many families have been separated. But in the four years applicants were allowed to wait out the process in the United States, the Immigration and Naturalization Service received more than 1 million requests for change of immigration status, a tenfold increase.
Now, the only way to get around the reentry ban is to apply for a hardship waiver. "It's extraordinarily difficult to get waivers," said Matthew Tollmer, a spokesman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "You have to prove extreme hardship--not to the immigrant but to an American citizen," such as a relative or an employer.
The association has been pressing Congress to allow applicants with relatives or employers as sponsors to stay while their cases are pending.
"This law makes no sense at any level," Tollmer said. "These are people we want in the country. They have family ties and commitments to their communities. . . . It's in the best interests of our country."
While the debate rages, 1,800 miles separate the Sortos.
Apolinario, the fourth of nine children born to a peasant farmer and his wife, said he would stay with his parents in the rural village of Pajigua near the Honduran border. He has not been there in four years.
Apolinario was just 17 and had completed eight years of school when he decided to come to the United States. His father was ill and could no longer till his cornfields.
Apolinario said a cousin living in Los Angeles paid a smuggler $1,000 to accompany him across the Mexican border through the Arizona desert, then to California.
After six months working with his cousin doing landscaping, Apolinario joined a brother in Leesburg who had applied for asylum.
He worked 100 hours a week in two jobs, as a cook and a dishwasher. Every month, he sent his parents $200.
One day at the fast-food restaurant where he was working, he caught the eye of the cashier.
"I fell in love with her the first time I saw her," he said. "But I was afraid to ask her for a date. She's American, and I'm not. I did not know if she would say yes."
Joanna Perry, then 17, had two years of high school Spanish behind her but remembered only the words for numbers and "hello." Apolinario spoke almost no English.
"We couldn't talk," she said, recalling the eye contact that preceded his asking her to dinner at a Mexican restaurant. "We'd just look at each other smiling."
But love helps inspire language skills. Three months later, as soon as Joanna turned 18, they eloped to marry before a justice of the peace in Leesburg.
Wanting to start the paperwork to make Apolinario a naturalized citizen, Joanna asked for his immigration card. He said he didn't have one. She asked for his visa. Same answer.
"I was angry," Joanna recalled. "My father taught me to do things by the rules. If you get a speeding ticket, you pay it. I was, like, 'How come I didn't know this?' That was our first big fight."
They visited an accountant and repaid more than $5,000 in state and federal income taxes owed by Apolinario from a variety of jobs he had held before his marriage.
A visit to a lawyer was more sobering. Donna Becker, head of legal services at Hogar Hispano in Falls Church, said Apolinario would have to return to El Salvador. The wait for a waiver, she said, could be a year or longer.
"This is a sweet young couple whose only crime is the young man came here illegally like hundreds and hundreds of thousands of others," Becker said. "Unfortunately, the immigration laws passed in 1996 are very harsh and very punishing."
Keeping in touch during their separation will not be easy. Apolinario will write letters telling Joanna when he will visit a friend with a phone, so she can call him.
"I know what I did was illegal," he said. "But I wish I didn't have to leave her."
In the past two years, Joanna has watched her grandmother die, her parents divorce, two siblings move out of state and her father move out of the country. Now she feels helpless watching her husband leave.
"I understand he broke the law," she said. "I know he has to go back. But I want him to return as soon as he can.
"I'm an American citizen, and I want my husband with me."
On their last night together, the Sortos dined at a Japanese steakhouse. Apolinario's brother and sister brought over so many gifts for him to take to relatives that he had to pay $150 for excess baggage.
In his luggage, Apolinario hid the gold signet ring that Joanna gave him for their anniversary, so as not to attract the attention of robbers in El Salvador.
He knows it may be a long time before he can wear it openly again. The ticket that he handed to the boarding agent was one-way.
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company