Couple united by marriage, divided by government

Matthew Dudley has been trying to get his wife, Sarah, to the US from Canada for more than a year. They've missed out on the traditional newly wed stuff and Matthew has missed seeing his son Jakob, 9 months old, grow up. ( Bart Ah You/ The Modesto Bee)
Matthew Dudley has been trying to get his wife, Sarah, to the US from Canada for more than a year. They've missed out on the traditional newly wed stuff and Matthew has missed seeing his son Jakob, 9 months old, grow up. ( Bart Ah You/ The Modesto Bee) Modesto Bee

OAKDALE -- Sarah Dudley is never far from the phone. She is waiting for one of two calls. One will keep her life going. The other will change it forever.

The first will be from the 23-year-old's husband of a year and a half, Matthew Dudley, 24. He lives in Oakdale.

The call that will change her life will come from the American consulate in Montreal. Someone will call and ask her to come in for an interview. If her papers are in order, she and their 9-month-old son, Jakob, will be given a visa and allowed to fly to California two days later.

"I've been waiting for so long, it probably won't seem real," Sarah said during a telephone interview.

The Dudleys have lived separately during their marriage except for a few months at the end of her pregnancy. Weeks after their wedding in California, they were stopped by Customs and Border Protection officials as they tried to re-enter the United States from Canada.

"They pulled me into a room and interrogated me for four hours. They separated Matthew and me. They told each of us that the other person was telling a different story," Sarah said.

Eventually, she returned home and Matthew re-entered the United States and moved into a house near his parents in Oakdale. He got a job as a ditch tender at the Oakdale Irrigation District and started settling into a home for the family he hoped would join him soon.

The process of getting visas for Sarah and Jakob -- a petition and various other forms, fees, biographical and tax informa- tion, proof of support in the United States, and a long wait for an interview and health exam -- has tested their patience and perseverance.

Matthew hasn't seen his fam-ily for more than two months. He hasn't worked at his job long enough to accrue much vacation time. Every two to three months is as often as he is able to visit. He stays for a few days and flies back home. He has to work in the United States to prove he is established here and can support his family.

"It's been very upsetting for Matthew because, the last visit, Jakob didn't know him," said Sarah's mother, Ann Henderson.

Father misses his son's 'firsts'

Sarah regularly sends photos, but they don't capture everything.

"Jakob took his first steps a couple of weeks ago and now he's just walking. Matthew has missed all of Jakob's firsts," Sarah said.

As Jakob learns to walk and talk, life without his father has been confusing.

"Every time the phone rings and it's a long-distance ring, we say 'There's Dada!' So Jakob thinks the phone is called 'Dada,' " Henderson said.

Dudley said he has done all he can to bring his family to the United States.

"I've done everything the government has asked me to do. I've paid every fee. We're trying to do it legally. Everything has been approved. Now all we are waiting for is an interview," Dudley said.

The Dudleys have been waiting for that interview since June 7, when Sarah's paperwork was deemed complete. Her petition was approved a year ago.

So far, the ordeal has cost the Dudleys about $1,000 in fees and $8,000 for travel, attorney's bills and more.

Sarah was so sure she'd be in Oakdale by now that she has shipped most of her things. "I don't even have winter clothes," she said.

Dudley said he's tried everything. He's contacted politicians and even written to TV star Oprah Winfrey.

He wonders if the post-Sept. 11 border tightening is to blame for the slow processing.

"Everyone who comes to the border isn't considered a terrorist," said Roxanne Hercules of Customs and Border Protection. "The borders have gotten tighter because we're trying to keep citizens safe."

The process the Dudleys are undergoing has been unaffected by homeland security and border regulation changes brought about by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she added.

The couple have talked about living in Canada, but Matthew figures taxes are lower in the United States, the weather is better and his family is in Oakdale.

"They're all so anxious for us to come. I get letters from them all the time," Sarah said.

A lot less heartache

If they had it to do over again, the Dudleys, who met in Canada while Matthew was on a church mission, would not have left the United States after they wed in February 2005. But Sarah's fam-ily had spent $20,000 on the wedding and reception before consulting a lawyer who told them marrying in the United States would make it easier to process Sarah's immigration request. So the couple married in California and returned to Canada for a reception.

"A lot of people in the family hadn't met Matthew yet," Hen-derson said. "We went ahead with the reception so the family could meet him."

It's true, there would have been a lot less heartache if Sarah had entered the United States as a visitor, married here and not returned to Canada, according to the family's new attorney, Daniel G. Gold of Torrance. Had she not left, she could have stayed in the States while her paperwork was being processed.

Because she went to Canada for the reception and tried to re-enter after she was married, Border Patrol agents figured she was entering with the intent of becoming a citizen. So they sent her home to process her paperwork.

"If you enter as a visitor and you really intend to live with your husband, immigration service would say you committed fraud," Gold said.

When the Dudleys realized this, they started processing the paperwork and eventually got a lawyer. "We are trying to do everything the right way," Matthew said.

Sarah said she's still bitter about the interrogation and is afraid of crossing the border with her son once she is given the OK.

"I'm terrified they'll do it again. I'm not some kind of terrorist. I'm a 5-foot-2, small-framed blonde!" she said. "It's not fair. Our paperwork is done and waiting. It's just sitting on someone's desk collecting dust."

That's almost accurate, Gold said.

"It was on someone's desk and they did what they had to do. Now it's sitting on a shelf, waiting to be pulled," he said.

"After the petition is approved, our work is done," said Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "When the applicant is called in by the consulate depends on their workload."

That wait could take a couple of weeks in some places or nine months in places such as Can-ada, where the consulate's office is understaffed. People can wait a year for an interview in Juarez, Mexico, Gold said.

It's hard to say how much longer Sarah has to wait. In August, she was told there were 401 cases ahead of hers.

"It's becoming more common for people to wait longer periods of time for an interview," Gold said. "We are at the mercy of the government to make a slot available."

Until then, the Dudleys will endure the 2,500-mile divide and correspond via the phone Jakob thinks is "Dada."

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at 578-2382 or ehightower@modbee.com.