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Ohio Veteran's Immigration Fight For Her Husband Featured By Frontline PBS

Elizabeth and Marcos Perez in Mexico City, as featured in the Frontline PBS film "Marcos Doesn't Live Here Anymore." [Frontline / PBS]
Elizabeth and Marcos Perez in Mexico City

Over the course of nearly ten years, Elizabeth Perez has been fighting the immigration system on behalf of her undocumented husband, Marcos.

He was deported after a traffic stop in 2010.

Perez is a Cleveland Heights Marine veteran, and a mother of four, and is featured in the film “Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,”  from FRONTLINE, Independent Lens and VOCES, airing Monday, April 15 at 9 p.m. on WVIZ/PBS.

The film follows Elizabeth Perez as she appeals to lawmakers, as she deals with lawyers, but ultimately how she tries to manage the situation and the strain on her family.

In one scene, after one of many rejections of appeals to immigration authorities, Elizabeth visits Marcos in Mexico City as they consider their next steps, and the toll the situation is taking.

"You're not the only one waiting and all that," Elizabeth exclaims.

Because of his deportation, the couple is looking to a ten-year mark before they can apply for a visa for a spouse.

"I want to have a family, to be responsible, to be a dad, to be next to you," Marcos says with tears in his eyes. "That's what I want."

Filming ended with Elizabeth and her children trying a second time to live in Mexico to wait out the immigration system, but she's now returned to Northeast Ohio.

"There wasn't just one particular reason why," she says, insisting the family tried hard to make their lives work in a new country. "It was a culmination of so many things: economically, social, psychological."

In the beginning

Elizabeth left the Marine Corps and moved to California, where she in 2009 met Marcos.

"I was walking down the street, and he was talking to me, and hook, line, and sinker--that was it," she says, smiling.

Elizabeth says Marcos came to the U.S. in the early- to mid-nineties. He had another daughter, and began a new life here. He had three jobs when Elizabeth met him, and she says she didn’t know about his immigration status in the beginning.

"I didn't know what all that meant anyways," she says. "I just imagined okay, you pay some money to a lawyer, and they'll fix some paperwork. As long as you have the money, as long as you pay, it's a paperwork issue, there's a way to do everything."

Elizabeth says once the couple was serious, they started working on the paperwork, and started talking to lawyers. She says she cashed-in her retirement plan from her military service to spend on lawyer fees.

"That's when I started realizing, oh wow, this is a lot more than just paying a couple thousand dollars, and getting some paperwork fixed. This might not even happen. So we had been working on his legal status for a year-and-a-half, two years, before he was even deported," she says.

Marcos had what Elizabeth described as "a minor misdemeanor" in his past, which she doesn't know for sure if that has held up her attempts at getting Marcos back in the country through the proper channels. She says Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hasn't given feedback on her petitions, so she can't be certain what if any factor is preventing the applications from being successful.

Marcos Perez in an emotional scene of the film "Marcos Doesn't Live Here Anymore"

Across the aisle, across the border

Much of the film, as with much of Elizabeth and Marcos' story, takes place under the Obama Administration. Despite much attention on immigration under President Donald Trump, Elizabeth says traditional partisan identities don't always apply with immigration cases.

"One of the oddest things is you feel like one party is going to lean in your favor, and one party is not, but I actually found almost the opposite at times, it all depends on the person," she says. "I had the door basically slammed in my face by my Democratic representative, and then a Republican representative making calls and trying to help me. I mean, all of it was face value anyways, to be honest with you."

Elizabeth thinks common reasons for allowing deportation are not valid, and she thinks the film shows it--though she didn't give examples of those arguments. She thinks if practical reasons for deportation are not true, then arguments are coming from somewhere else.

"To me, all that's left standing after that is some kind of hatred, or racism, or fear, to just get these people out of our country as quickly as they can, and not give families a chance," she says. 

Marcos, in the film, at times expresses a desperation and a desire to return to the U.S. by whatever means he can, but Elizabeth urges him to stay with the legal route.

"Yeah, that's actually been really hard. That temptation for Marcos to cross the border has been something that I've always had, and we could've went that way, but then I just have to remember what happens if he crossed the border and he came back, we're on our way to our son's high school graduation, and he gets pulled over, and the whole thing happens again," she says.

The situation has taken a toll on the Perez family, but also on Elizabeth's health. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs upped Elizabeth's anxiety rating at one point. She hesitates to talk about it because of a stigma she still feels around mental health, especially from her position as a Marine.

"I just want to be real. I definitely feel like, of course it didn't originate from this situation, but I definitely feel like this situation has just magnified [the anxiety] intensely," she says.

The family now is in a holding pattern until 2020, when they can apply for a family visa and then wait.

"I hope people can see [in the film] the damage that's actually done to families," she says. "Our elected officials know what goes on already, this film is not going to be a surprise to any of them. So I would hope what this film could do is maybe make them actually do some immigration reform, or something like that, because they all know what's going on. This is nothing new."

The film “Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” airs Monday, April 15 at 9 p.m. on WVIZ/PBS.

Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.