She’s been married for a little more than a month, a newlywed by any standard.
But there has been no honeymoon for Maria Bonilla. There has been no celebration.
Instead, Bonilla — a 35-year-old mother of five — has spent more than two months wrestling with anxiousness and uncertainty, waiting for a federal immigration court judge to rule on the fate of her new husband, Leobel Bonilla Gomez, and their family.
It’s a ruling expected to come this week, carrying with it the potential to uproot the Bonillas while at the same time thrusting a number of uncomfortable questions at the center of the national immigration debate into the local spotlight.
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Who gets to stay? Who has to go? And what happens to families, especially innocent children, separated by the federal government in the process of grappling with these increasingly partisan dilemmas?
Highlighted by the same shortcomings and redeeming qualities that define the human experience, Bonilla Gomez’s story defies the black-and-white narratives both sides of the immigration debate often cling to.
That’s a lengthy way of saying that, aside from crossing the border illegally more than a decade ago, he’s a lot like many of us.
He’s a loving father, a hardworking breadwinner and part of a family many have valiantly rallied around in a time of need. Without him, Maria Bonilla says, the family is barely staying afloat, emotionally and financially.
He’s also an individual who has struggled with alcohol addiction — with two DUIs and a dismissed, alcohol-related domestic violence charge on his record.
Now, with his future in the hands of an immigration judge, all of it is on the table.
Originally from Guatemala, Bonilla Gomez is an undocumented immigrant, having lived in the United States since 2006.
He arrived in Washington state in 2008, his wife says, and currently works as a house painter. When he was 12, back in Guatemala, he toiled on a coffee plantation, working alongside his father.
Bonilla Gomez came to the United States when he was 24, seeking an escape from gangs, violence and a lack of economic prospects. They’re some of the same factors that contributed to his issues with alcohol, his wife says.
According to Maria Bonilla, in late October Leobel was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents while taking his kids to the dentist in Puyallup.
Less than a month later, the couple was married, inside the Northwest Detention Center. Officials with ICE declined to respond to interview requests for this column, citing the ongoing government shutdown, but according to Bonilla Gomez’s attorney, Diego Javier Aranda Tiexeria, his client has been held at the facility since he was apprehended.
The marriage was about love — the couple has been together for many years and had often discussed it — but it also has potential legal advantages.
Together with Maria, the couple have two children, 3-year-old twins, Joshua and Samantha. The twins were born prematurely and have developmental issues.
Maria Bonilla also has three children from a previous relationship, including a son who suffers from ADHD. That relationship ended in tragedy when the children’s father drown in American Lake in 2010.
Leobel Bonilla Gomez has been raising all of the children as his own. But without a marriage making his relationship with Maria official, the immigration court was unlikely to weigh his parental role of the three oldest children in its decision.
“It was very romantic,” Maria Bonilla said of the marriage last week, joking through an interpreter.
It was a momentary bit of levity, injected into a situation that’s otherwise devoid of it.
Barring an unforeseen delay, Aranda Tiexeria says he expects an immigration judge to decide Tuesday whether his client will be allowed to stay in the United States or forced to return to Guatemala.
For Maria and her family, the verdict carries the weight of the world. If her new husband is allowed to stay, her prayers will have been answered. If he’s forced to leave, it will trigger a new set of decisions for the family with no good options to choose from.
They could follow him back to Guatemala, she says, though she’s from Mexico and has few prospects in her husband’s native country. Compounding the situation, her three oldest children have never been to Guatemala and have no legal right to be there.
Or, the family could stay in the United States while Leobel goes alone.
“I don’t want to think about that,” Maria Bonilla says through an interpreter when presented with the options.
The case, according to Aranda Tiexeria, will hinge on two things.
As a lawyer, he’ll need to prove that Bonilla Gomez’s removal from the United States would present a “global hardship” for the Bonillas. Given the medical challenges three of his children face — and the way his detention has impacted the family, including two of the children being diagnosed with depression and anxiety — it will the simpler of the two arguments.
He’ll also need to demonstrate that his client meets the intentionally subjective immigration law standard for “good moral character.” Aranda Tiexeria says he will attempt to show the progress Bonilla Gomez has made in his fight against alcoholism — including acknowledging his problem, entering treatment and remaining sober for more than a year.
That’s going to be the tricky part, and Aranda Tiexeria acknowledges the case could go either way.
“Yes, he’s a faulted man,” the attorney says. “But immigrants are the only people who we actually expect to be superhuman.”
Ultimately, it will be up to an immigration judge to decide the fate of Bonilla Gomez — and by extension, his family’s.
But at the center are questions we should all take time to ponder.
Who gets to stay? Who has to go?
Many of us should be thankful we don’t have to make the same case to stay.