The forbidden romance between the Border Patrol agent and the illegal immigrant began in a gym.
Maria Terrazas, 31, met Jose Ruiz three years ago at LM’s Body Builders in this remote border town. Terrazas, a waitress and mother of two, knew Ruiz was a catch. As a Border Patrol agent, Ruiz belonged to an elite class in town: available men with good jobs and an education.
The two began dating, and their relationship continued even after Terrazas was deported to Mexico in November 2004. She quickly bluffed her way through U.S. customs and back to Ruiz.
Terrazas, who said several of her illegal immigrant girlfriends have relationships with border agents, saw nothing unusual about dating a man whose job was to keep people like her out of the U.S. “He had his own job and I had mine,” Terrazas said in an interview. “I never thought it’d cause problems.”
But it did.
Terrazas faces deportation again and Ruiz, 30, is on leave from the patrol. A second agent has been charged with felonies for giving Terrazas a short ride across the border from Mexico. It is one of four felony cases stemming from a federal crackdown against corruption on the Arizona border.
That push has highlighted an open secret along the border: romance between illegal immigrants and those responsible for deporting them.
Some locals say that such relationships are inevitable in a town where the nearest movie theater is 51 miles north and the nearest nightclubs lie just across the border in Agua Prieta, Mexico. The clandestine romances, they add, also make a mockery of efforts targeting illegal immigrants, such as laws being considered by Congress that would mandate fences along sections of the border and fine employers who hire illegal aliens.
But such lines between the legal and illegal can be hard to draw on the southwestern border. For generations, families have easily moved back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico, and even Douglas’ mayor says he doesn’t know whether longtime residents are in the country legally or not. Border Patrol agents, often young, single and new to the area, can get caught between the clear dictates of U.S. immigration law and the ambiguities of the heart.
“The absurdity of it gets played out in the day-to-day lives of Border Patrol agents,” said Jennifer Allen, director of the Border Action Network, an immigrant rights group based in Tucson. “Everybody knows somebody [in the U.S. illegally] who has some kind of relationship with a Border Patrol agent. Either someone in their family is married to one, or they’re sleeping with one. People’s lives are very complicated and intertwined and they’re not very clear-cut.”
To the U.S. attorney’s office in Phoenix and Border Patrol officials, the issue is clear-cut, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks highlighted the importance of securing the nation’s borders.
Agents aren’t expected to inquire about the citizenship of women they meet socially, said Gustavo Soto, a Border Patrol spokesman in Tucson. “That’s one of the last things a young lady wants to hear -- ‘Hey, you have any papers?’ ” he said. “But once that information is found, that the person is here illegally,” the patrol expects the relationship to end.
Paul Charlton, U.S. attorney for the district of Arizona, said it’s especially important to be diligent about enforcing immigration law in a state where 52% of all illegal immigrants caught entering the country are detained.
Charlton said of the agents: “These are individuals who have put aside concern, both for immigration laws and the security of their own country, for their own interests.”
Border agents, or any U.S. citizen, who wish to marry foreigners can get approval to bring them into the country legally, Charlton said. But that approval doesn’t always come smoothly.
Pablo Berry was a 17-year-old student at Douglas High School when he met the only woman he ever dated: classmate Claudia Veronica Vasquez-Banda, 18. Like many at the school, Vasquez-Banda, court records show, was an illegal immigrant.
After graduating, Berry held a series of minimum-wage jobs that reflected the paucity of opportunities on the border -- picking chiles, cooking at a Kentucky Fried Chicken -- before securing an $11-an-hour post at a resort in Sedona, Ariz. In March 2003, the couple’s daughter, Emily, was born. Berry needed better pay to support his family.
In southern Arizona, there was only one growth industry: the Border Patrol. Berry’s hometown of 17,000 was opening a new station with 500 agents and entry-level wages of $40,000 a year.
Berry joined the patrol in July 2003, stating in his application that he had no illegal immigrants in his household.
“He was blinded by love,” said Berry’s attorney, Gary Spector. “If you have a family member [who’s an illegal immigrant] you don’t feel it’s as egregious as someone who’s trying to sneak across the border.”
In October 2004, the couple went to U.S. customs to apply for citizenship for Vasquez-Banda. But a customs supervisor saw them enter the post from the Douglas side of the border and determined that Vasquez-Banda had been in the U.S. illegally, Spector said.
Earlier this month, Berry, 23, who pleaded guilty to making a false statement on his job application, apologized to a federal judge in a Tucson courtroom. “I know what I did was bad,” said Berry, who resigned from his job that day. He had in the meantime married Vasquez-Banda.
“I took a chance,” Berry said, “but I love my wife -- I won’t leave her.”
He was sentenced to two years’ probation. His wife now has a permit to work in this country.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Mary Sue Feldmeier praised Berry for admitting his guilt, but called his behavior “the ultimate hypocrisy -- while deporting other illegal aliens, [Berry] goes home to an illegal alien every night.”
Sometimes after agents fall in love unwittingly with an illegal immigrant, they’re too committed to the relationship to end it. Ramon Sanchez Jr. was fresh out of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement training academy when he met his girlfriend at a Tucson music shop in August 2004. Court records indicate that Sanchez, who worked for the agency that handles deportations, did not realize she was in the U.S. illegally until four months later.
Three weeks after their wedding in February, the Department of Homeland Security got an anonymous tip that Sanchez had married an illegal immigrant. Sanchez was arrested at his desk the following month and pleaded guilty to harboring an illegal immigrant.
Sanchez, who is awaiting sentencing, did not respond to a request for an interview and his lawyer declined to comment.
Charlton, the U.S. attorney, said that agents like Sanchez violated the law when they knew their partners were in the country illegally yet did not act.
Ray Borane, the mayor of Douglas, said agents had reason not to. He said he knew at least two illegal immigrant-Border Patrol couples who wanted to remain secret. Agents developed such relationships naturally.
“They’re very much available, they’re out socializing,” Borane said.
Whether the people they socialize with are legal U.S. residents can change from week to week. Terrazas insisted she was in the country legally when she met Ruiz but that that permission expired two years later, just before she was deported.
Ruiz could not be reached and his attorney had no comment.
Terrazas said her relationship with Ruiz soured after her return to the U.S. Ruiz became jealous when Terrazas accompanied another agent to nightclubs, she said, and he threatened to deport her.
On Jan. 22, police responded to a domestic violence call at Ruiz’s apartment. Terrazas said Ruiz had hit her, and prosecutors charged Ruiz with assault.
But that charge was dropped in September after Terrazas’ testimony raised questions about her credibility, court documents show. Authorities have initiated deportation proceedings against Terrazas, who said her two children, U.S. citizens who attend Douglas public schools, might suffer if she left the country.
The only person facing criminal prosecution in the case is Ephraim Cruz, an eight-year Border Patrol veteran who, with another off-duty agent, gave Terrazas a ride from the Mexican border to the U.S. side where her car was parked. Cruz said he saw Terrazas at Border Patrol functions and knew she was the girlfriend of another agent.
He contended the prosecution was retaliation for his complaints to Congress last year about what he called the abuse of detained immigrants in Douglas.
Interactions with illegal immigrants are inevitable, Cruz said. “How about the [Border Patrol] chief and his family when they eat out? Are they not served by illegal immigrants?”
Charlton would not comment on why Cruz, and no other agent, had been charged in the Terrazas’ case.
Despite the fact that locals now know she is in the U.S. illegally, Terrazas said, she still gets asked out by agents.
One agent assured her that “my job is my job, and when I leave I can do what I want to do,” she said.
But Terrazas is not interested anymore. She said, “I don’t trust any of them.”