Midnight Wednesday was magical for Heren Morales.
Just as the clock struck 12 to start the Fourth of July, her husband walked in the door after 16 months of separation. Ricardo was stuck in Mexico in "immigration hell," and finally the red tape was broken and the husband and father of two is back with his wife in Mt. Juliet.
On Friday, Heren, 26, Ricardo, 24, and her son, Osmond, were in Chattanooga at the aquarium.
"He's never been before," said Heren. "I thought it would be a great welcome home."
Ricardo celebrated his second wedding anniversary in March with only a long-distance phone call with his bride. They met on a semi-blind date, fell and love and now share two children. The couple said they were in immigration hell after trying to do the right thing.
"We are both single parents," said Heren, who holds two jobs and cares for her ailing father.
"We joined Mt. Juliet Life Church and became Christians," she said.
Heren said during the "falling in love" process she learned Ricardo was in the U.S. illegally. She said it was too late to turn back, and in the full flush of love pushed this knowledge somewhat into the peripheral.
Ricardo decided he wanted to "do right," and gain legal status.
What should have been a fairly straightforward process, turned into a "messed up process," said Heren.
"We knew he had to get legal status; it was the right thing to do," said Heren. "We knew he was married to me, and I'm a U.S. citizen."
Because of immigration laws, Ricardo had to return to Mexico to complete the visa process and had remained there until Tuesday.
Heren quietly admits at times, late at night when she was alone, she regretted doing the right thing.
"I know what he did was wrong, coming here without permission," she said. "But, we were doing everything and anything to make that right."
They spent $10,000 to get Ricardo home. Nashville-based immigration lawyer Linda Rose explained Ricardo had entered a "maze filled with minefields," when they started the process to get his legal status. She said in their situation, Ricardo had to go through "a song and dance, show medical records and more."
"It's not easy...and expensive," she said.
Ricardo filed a waiver about a year ago, and it was finally granted. Mt. Juliet Life Church Pastor Eddie Poole married the couple. He said he supported their desire to gain Ricardo's legal status.
"I never thought it would end up like this, with red tape and endless obstacles," he said.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker's office monitored the situation. As of early last week Helen nor Ricardo had a clue he would be home today. Corker's office gave them a heads up Monday that Ricardo's waiver had been granted.
"We had continued to call Sen. Corker's office and wrote letters, up to the last minute," said Poole. "We even had a letter hand-delivered to Corker's aide. We kept praying and supporting the family. We didn't feel much was going on with getting him home."
He said Corker's office called and told him Ricardo was coming home.
"Heren didn't know," he said. "She called her attorney, and she didn't know either."
Poole said Ricardo, who was in Mexico, was told by the immigration service to pick up a package at the local shipping business.
"He didn't know what it was, and there was , he couldn't get the package until Monday," said Poole.
It was a letter that told him to go pick up his passport. Ricardo traveled 12 hours and had to have a second physical, which cost him another $600. He finally was able to get on a bus and arrived at Heren's house midnight Wednesday.
"She told me she was so excited," said Poole. "She said she woke up and wanted somebody to pinch her and said, 'is my husband really laying beside me?'"
Osmond, 10, was allowed to stay up past bedtime to welcome Ricardo home, said Heren.
"Words just can't explain how happy I am," said Heren just before she had lunch in Chattanooga on Friday. "My husband is right next to me."
Ricardo is adjusting and trying to get back into his regular routine.
"I'm very, very happy," he said.
Heren said it was a little "awkward" sitting next to Ricardo traveling back from Chattanooga.
"Having him next to me, I guess I'm still in shock," she said. "But, I realize he's here for good now."
Heren said they'd do it over again and while it was a "nightmare," now they can "proceed forward."
Soon Ricardo will get his work visa.
"We want to save up money, buy a house and grow our family," she said.
Life Church plans to welcome Ricardo back Sunday.
"We will have a little ceremony," said Poole. "We will have Ricardo take part."
A banner is being made to welcome Ricardo back.
Poole said he's extremely happy the couple is reunited. He shakes his head at what a mess it all turned out to be. He had encouraged Ricardo to gain legal status and set things right.
"I'm still under the impression there needs to be a middle ground in all this," he said. "I know it is a very completed and difficult issue. Here was a man trying to do the right thing and in many minds he was punished. People should be encouraged to set things right."