Awfully Wedded Wife

Bigamy charges and dozens of busts for sham marriages.It must be South Florida.

ICE spokesperson Nicole Navas would say only that each case would be "handled individually and evaluated on its own merits."

Not long before he met Eunice, Ivan had a nightmare. In it, he was wandering around a hot, cramped room with white walls. A twin mattress lay on the floor. Something was familiar about the place — the smell or the feeling. And it was unsettling. In the middle of the night, he sat up in bed, sweating. "It's my old room in Uruguay," he says. "And I realize I've been deported."

Michael McElroy
Susana Baker says she was duped into falling in love with a con artist who married her for immigration papers.
Laura Massa
Susana Baker says she was duped into falling in love with a con artist who married her for immigration papers.

Now he wonders if he should have taken the dream as a sign. Next to some volleyball courts in a park off Biscayne Boulevard, he thinks about Eunice, and his face tightens. He speaks with a slight accent and wears a Yankees baseball cap pulled down low. "When I met —" he stops himself. "I don't like to say her name. It gets me sick."

Ivan came to the United States in 2002. A bad economy hit Uruguay hard and sank his minimart business. "I looked for jobs, even cleaning bathrooms, but there was nothing," he says. So he flew to the States and got a gig at a shipping company in Aventura. Immediately, he began learning English. He secured construction jobs and then freelance graphic design work. "I was living my life like an American," he says. "Sometimes you forget you're not."

Then in late 2005, he was offered a $90,000 salary in New York at a graphic design company. He couldn't accept it because of his immigration status. That, along with not being able to visit his family (leaving the country would mean he couldn't return) made him feel like he was living in "a golden cage." So he began searching for a solution: He asked around about paying for a wife. In two months, through friends, he found Eunice. Word on the street was marriages went for about $10,000, so when she agreed to $8,000 — half beforehand and half when his papers came — he thought it was reasonable.

Four days before the wedding, he met Eunice for the first time in the Hialeah shopping center. She brought along a skinny, nondescript white guy who lingered in the background. Ivan scrunches up his face at the idea of meeting her. "I know I'm not a model or anything. But I thought, Nobody is going to believe us."

She invited him into a dark-colored sedan, where she gave him a copy of her Social Security card, and they arranged to meet and marry that week. His heart was racing.

The day of the wedding, he skipped breakfast. An old friend from work picked him up in the morning and drove him to Hialeah in his SUV for moral support.

Growing up Catholic, Ivan had a different idea for what his wedding would be like. "It was my first marriage, and it wasn't for love," he says, shaking his head. "One part is legal. The other is moral."

After the wedding, when he couldn't find her, he began digging through public records online. Sixteen other men? he thought. He felt his stomach twist.

A month of insomnia followed. "I was part of a little club," he says. "I felt my life go down the toilet." Returning home crossed his mind, but it wasn't an option. "I'd rather jump from a bridge," he says. "I think I love America more than Americans do." Then he got a lawyer.

Practically speaking, Ivan should have let that day at the courthouse go a long time ago. But lately, he's been paralyzed by panic attacks. He's afraid to drive alone at night for fear of getting pulled over. He can't set foot in an airport. And every time the phone rings or there's a knock on the door, he's sure it's the feds ready to ship him away. "You have to have eyes in the back of your head," he says, forcing a smile. "I tried to jump, and I fell."

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