Robert Paulino, a 21-year-old waiter from North Carolina, flew to Louisiana this week in a last ditch effort to tie the knot with his incarcerated highschool sweetheart, 23-year-old Wendy Miranda.
Paulino hopes that by marrying his girlfriend of seven years he can save her from the horrific gang violence she fled in El Salvador nearly a decade ago.
If the story sounds familiar, it's because it is. The same thing happened to the couple two weeks ago in Georgia, where Miranda was being held at Irwin County Detention Center.
But when Paulino went to the detention center in his first effort to marry Miranda on May 5, he learned that she had been quietly relocated to another detention center during the night—and nobody would tell him where she was.
When Paulino finally tracked her down in Louisiana, he headed southwest to chase her across the country and take another shot at marriage. Their second attempt was stymied on Wednesday, when the courthouse wouldn't issue a marriage certificate with just a photocopy of Miranda's ID. And since the original document is in ICE's custody along with his bride, the young couple appeared to be out of time and out of luck.
That's because ICE agents reportedly told Miranda on Wednesday morning that her number was up. "I was told to pack my bags. I'm on a list for deportation at 1 a.m.," Miranda told Univision via a crackly payphone call to Paulino from ICE's LeSalle Detention Facility late Wednesday night.
It was a moment of fear and frustration.
"It's real hard. They ruined everything we were trying to do," Miranda said over the phone. "This is the second time they have ruined everything!"
After placing a final midnight phone call to her mother in North Carolina, Miranda was apparently taken to the airport and put in a waiting room prior to boarding, according to Paulino's recount of a conversation he had with Miranda afterwards. But when the ICE agents came back to fetch her, she was put back in the van and returned her to the LaSalle detention facility.
"The only thing she said they told her was that they gotta bring her back," Paulino said.
Can marriage save her?
An ICE spokesman wouldn't comment on the details of case other than to say "I cannot confirm a removal date until after a removal has occurred."
He did, however, say that marriage wouldn't save her.
"It has no impact on her removal proceedings," ICE spokesman Thomas Byrd told Univision News. "That’s all I can say at this time."
The office of North Carolina Congressman G.K. Butterfield, who has intervened on Miranda’s behalf, saysit was informed by ICE on Thursday afternoon that Miranda's deportation has been delayed another week to allow the Board of Immigration Appeals more time consider her motion to reopen the asylum case.
Miranda's immigration lawyer, Nardine Guirguis, claims she has "new information" that proves Miranda's life is in extreme danger from gang violence if sent back to El Salvador. Deportation, she says, would be a death sentence.
"Wendy and her fiance are petrified for her life, and so are we," the lawyer told Univision.
Guirguis says that if Miranda and Paulino get married in the next few days, it will allow her defense team to file motion claiming change of circumstance, which will further strengthen their efforts to convince the Board of Immigration Appeals to reopen the case.
Miranda originally came to the United States as a teen in 2008 after witnessing a gang murder in her neighborhood. She filed an asylum request and attended high school in Durham, North Carolina. Her case was eventually denied in August, 2016, and she was issued a deportation order. She filed a series of stays, but was taken into ICE custody on March 22.
Miranda has never broken the law in the United States, and can't understand why she's being treated like a criminal. Actually, she says, worse than a criminal.
"It's not fair. They are letting people go who have criminal records, but not me, and I've never committed a crime," she said over the pay phone Wednesday night.
Asked what her plan is in the event she eventually gets deported, Miranda is at a loss.
"I have no clue. No clue what I'm going to do," she said. "I have no family there."