On Thursday the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota will hold a free screening of a gripping documentary, "Tony & Janina's American Wedding" at the Riverview Theater. The movie, by filmmaker Ruth Leitman, chronicles the heart-wrenching travails of a family (the Wasilewskis) torn apart when the mother is forced to return to Poland after 15 years because her bid for asylum was denied.

There are hundreds of Minnesota families who can identify with the Wasilewskis' plight, but perhaps none more so than a Maplewood couple, Raul and Emily Garzon.

Like the movie family, the Garzons' life was torn at the seams because of a brutal law that forced Raul back to Mexico to await a visa after they were married. Raul is now reunited with his family, but it took a terrible tragedy for that to happen: The baby daughter he never knew died of sudden infant death syndrome.

Raul knows he made a mistake when, at age 17, he walked across the desert for 16 days and entered the United States illegally, looking for a better and safer life. But he met up with family members, got a job and stayed out of trouble. Before long, he met Emily, a U.S. citizen, while salsa dancing at a restaurant.

Emily knew Raul was here illegally, but understood. "The way I look at it, I know I would do anything to take care of my family," said Emily. "Raul was doing the same thing by coming here."

They became good friends and eventually started dating. Within a few months, Emily was pregnant. Because of Raul's status, they wavered on marriage, but when their son, Leo, was 2 months old, they made the leap in 2008. That's when the Garzons faced a dilemma common to immigrant families since 1996.

In order to obtain a visa, immigrants must go back to their original country, whether they've established a family here or not. If the immigrant has been in the United States illegally for more than a year, the law says they cannot return for 10 years, unless they obtain a waiver that acknowledges their absence would be a severe hardship to their U.S. family.

So Raul faced the choice of living his life with his new family under the radar, or going back to Mexico City and take the chance his waiver would take years -- or even be denied -- severing his ties to family altogether. Raul decided to apply for the waiver. Emily and Leo took him to the airport, not sure when they would see him again.

"I thought, gosh, the baby will be a year old or more before his daddy comes back," said Emily. "In addition to missing him, he didn't make enough money in Mexico to send any back."

After Raul left, Emily found out she was pregnant. So, the pregnant wife and mom worked and went to school full time while raising her son alone. Raul was not allowed to come back for the birth of his new daughter, Mya, and Leo grew up "thinking Dad was the computer," Emily said. "It's the main way we communicated."

"One of the big misconceptions is that if [an immigrant] gets married, it's easy," said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. "The hardest part for us is advising immigrants and telling them that if they leave, it might be a long time before they can come back. As a society, we have to ask how high of a price we make people in this situation pay."

Keller says a significant fine, rather than family separation, makes more sense until immigration laws are reformed.

The law was designed to deter illegal immigration, but it has not. Instead, Keller says, it has deterred people from taking a chance to secure legal citizenship and has broken up those families that do. A recent government report agrees with Keller, yet due to the strong anti-immigrant sentiment, there is little effort to change the law to make it easier for families to stay together while they await a waiver. The movie is one way advocates are trying to raise awareness of the issue.

While in Mexico for more than a year, Raul made about $5 a day, working long hours. To apply for his waiver, he had to travel to Juarez, at great expense, for interviews. Juarez is the epicenter of the drug wars, and clients awaiting citizenship have been murdered there, Keller said.

Raul was in Juarez for one of those interviews when he got the desperate call from Emily in February 2011: Mya had died.

"The hardest feeling in the world was knowing my daughter had died," said Raul. "I was all alone and I couldn't do anything."

Raul finally got the hardship waiver he had been waiting for -- by taking Mya's death certificate to the consulate.

Raul returned to Minnesota just in time to hug Mya before her funeral.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702