Canadians and Americans who are not permitted to cross the border may visit Peace Arch International Park, which straddles the boundary line between the two countries. There, they have found a quiet spot where they can meet without officially leaving their respective countries.

Share story

PEACE ARCH INTERNATIONAL PARK, Blaine — When the strain of separation becomes too much and they need to see and hold one another, David Williams and his wife, Janeane Ardiel, meet in a sort of no man’s land here just feet from a concrete boundary marker separating Canada from the U.S.

Married for five months, the couple — he American, she Canadian — are stranded on either side of the border, unable to cross into the other’s country.

Williams, 45, who lives in Bellingham, can’t travel into Canada because a 6-year-old DUI conviction makes him inadmissible.

And his wife, also 45, was denied entry to the U.S. in July after border officers in Blaine noticed her almost-weekly trips and told her they believed her intent was to live in the U.S. — not just visit.

“It is like being severed from my lifeline,” Ardiel said.

The couple have filed paperwork to get her legal status in the U.S., where they hope eventually to settle.

In the meantime, they have discovered a quiet place where they can meet — a metal picnic table beneath a sprawling silver maple in the shadow of this beautiful park’s looming white arch.

Surrounded by shrubs and flowers that offer a little privacy, the site is a common meet-up spot for separated Canadians and Americans who may visit the park without officially leaving their respective countries.

Len Saunders, the couple’s immigration attorney, who first told them about the picnic table, said clients use it because it’s the most neutral spot within the park, almost on top of the boundary line.

“It’s a sort of no man’s land,” he said. “I’m sure there are cameras everywhere, but I’ve never seen an officer out there … “

Last week, Williams and Ardiel met here for the second time since her July 22 ban from the U.S.

Williams, wearing jeans and a sweater, saw his wife far across the park when she was just yards from the Canadian inspection station and heading toward him.

As she reached him and they hugged, Ardiel broke down in sobs.

Though they speak every day, the distance has been tough on them both.

“I can tell her I love her 100 times on the phone,” Williams said. “It’s far different when I can do it looking into her eyes.”

Residency not automatic

Contrary to popular belief, a foreigner who marries a U.S. citizen doesn’t get automatic residency in the U.S. In fact, thousands of Americans are separated from spouses living in foreign countries.

Those who enter the U.S. legally and are living here when they marry a U.S. citizen can remain here while the immigration service processes their green-card petitions.

But those who are living abroad — including in Canada — usually must remain there during the processing, which can take six months or longer.

“Immigration law doesn’t necessarily favor cross-border love,” said Karol Brown, an immigration attorney in Seattle.

With citizenships in different countries, Williams, a chef, and Ardiel, a 911 emergency operator, knew they wouldn’t be able to live together right away.

They had talked about which country they would live in and determined they wanted to have access to both.

They knew that eventually they would begin the process to get Ardiel documents so she could live in the States.

But with their finances pressed, petitioning for a green card was not a priority. And they assumed they’d be able to spend days together every week while they raised the money for the immigration paperwork and legal fees.

Cross-border romance

Both previously divorced, the two first started talking three years ago when Ardiel’s sister, visiting one of Williams’ friends in Florida, told Williams she had the perfect woman for him.

They met for the first time in January 2007 when Ardiel flew down to Florida.

By then, the two say, they were already in love.

They met up every few months. When he flew to Bellingham and tried to drive into Vancouver, B.C., for the first time to visit her there, he was denied entry at the border, he said, because of a 2003 DUI conviction.

The Canadians don’t look kindly on past misdeeds.

Almost all convictions — any type of felony but also everything from reckless or negligent driving to misdemeanor drug possession, shoplifting or theft — can make a person inadmissible to Canada, regardless of how long ago the offense occurred.

In some cases, people can attempt to rehabilitate criminal records, but it’s not a simple process.

Williams said fixing his record with Canada is something he plans to do — but later. For now, he has more pressing concerns.

Love’s labor

Last October, he left Florida — a state where he lived since he was 13 — and his job as a chef so he could be close to Ardiel.

In Bellingham, despite 26 years in the kitchens of fine restaurants, he first earned a living working as a day laborer and washing dishes in restaurants before landing a position as a chef at Black Forest Steakhouse.

He and Ardiel were married in Bellingham in April.

“We’d talked about it for a long time,” he said. “I’ve never met anyone like her, and I knew I wanted to be with her for the rest of my life.”

The proximity meant they could see each other every few days — rather than the visits every few months when he was in Florida.

Ariel got to visit him in Bellingham every week. On one of those trips, she said, she asked a U.S. border officer what she needed to do to be able to continue to travel into the country. He explained the green-card and visa process for spouses, but “never once said that I could be barred,” she said.

When she tried to visit on July 22, she was pulled aside. Her car was searched. She said the contents of her purse were emptied onto the counter, and officers discovered a copy of her marriage certificate.

U.S. immigration law treats everyone who attempts entry into the country as if they intend to remain here. That Ardiel had a husband in the U.S., combined with the frequency of her visits, raised a red flag with border officers.

She was fingerprinted, photographed and told she could not try to enter again for six months.

She called Williams, crying.

It was as if the 40 miles separating them suddenly stretched across continents, they said.

“We’re thinking those were going to be six very long months,” Williams said. “We began discussing what steps to take next.”

The first was to contact an immigration attorney and file the necessary paperwork for Ardiel to get U.S. residency.

Saunders, the Blaine attorney, said that once he receives government confirmation for the documents he’s filed on their behalf, he’ll instruct Ardiel to take them to the border, along with evidence showing her ongoing commitment in Canada, including employment and residency.

The idea is to show officers that she has no intention of leaving Canada until her visa is issued.

Saunders said he was surprised to learn, when they first contacted him earlier this month, that Williams and Ardiel hadn’t seen each other for nearly seven weeks.

It was then that he told them about the picnic table near the boundary marker in the park.

Williams remembers that first visit with his wife, with Saunders literally walking them through it. “He escorted me to the bench,” Williams said. “And then he went across the border and escorted my wife over.

“He told us what areas we could go into and what areas we could not go. And for the first time in six weeks, I got to hold my wife and look into her eyes.”

News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com