Though too many families across the nation have been separated by the COVID-19 pandemic, quite the opposite has been true for one young Flower Mound couple.
Since late February, Cristina and Kenny Halloran have resided with Kenny’s mother Terri, sister Kelly, brother-in-law Tadas and nephew Oskar. Had the virus not hit the world, they would be 2,000 miles apart as Cristina would be back in Panama at her job with Johnson and Johnson.
She was scheduled to return March 18 but after the U.S. began shutting down a week earlier and her home country was doing the same, she was able to remain here. Fortunately, her company decided to allow people to work from home and Cristina was able to keep her job and stay with her family in America.
“It was exciting for her to be able to stay here, but we hadn’t thought about the logistics at all,” said the 34-year-old Kenny, one of the six people living under his mother’s roof. “Living in the house together with so many of us has been a special time, full of laughs and fun.”
Born and raised with her triplet sisters, older brother and a younger sister in Bogota, Colombia, the 26-year-old Cristina moved to her mother’s native Panama City at age 13. She first came to the U.S. in 2011 to attend the University of Arkansas under a full-ride scholarship program sponsored by the Panama government.
“I didn’t know what the University of Arkansas was until I showed up,” she said. “You land there and it’s just farms, farms, farms.”
After earning a degree in science in 2015, she started an internship at Baylor Hospital in downtown Dallas to become a registered dietitian. One of her training rotations was at a southside clinic where Kenny was working as a grant writer for the Southern Sector Health Initiative, a private/public community-based collaboration with the City of Dallas that studied diabetes.
“It’s a unique part of Baylor, one that even many people who work there don’t know anything about,” said Kenny, a state champion wrestler under the coaching of his late father Frank at Dallas Jesuit High School, and a scholarship athlete in the sport at the University of Michigan.
After Cristina finished her internship in June 2016, she headed back to Panama to fulfill the obligations of her scholarship. Soon thereafter, Kenny visited her and they then dated long distance until November 2017 when they got married in Dallas during one of her visits to the U.S.
“We wanted to be together and were thinking about getting married in Panama with my family and everyone there,” she said. “He said ‘you are coming here anyway – why don’t we just get married here. It doesn’t have to be anything big. Let’s just get married. You can tell your mom, then we’ll bring her here and she can be with us.’
“We told my mom in Panama and she was so happy she opened up a bottle of wine. Two weeks later we got married. Kenny made all the arrangements.”
They had to live separately for about six months until he moved to Panama in April 2018. Ever since they have been together and apart multiple times as they work their way through the three-step U.S. legal immigration process which normally takes 12-18 months but is more complicated with the pandemic.
It begins with the American citizen submitting I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative) paperwork to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service which Kenny did in February 2019.
Problem is, he estimates there are more than one million people in the pipeline which might explain why until April 30 they had only heard their petition was received and transferred from the Nebraska processing center to one in Vermont. It was on that day they found out it had moved to Step 2.
And even though President Trump recently halted the issuance of green cards during the pandemic, it isn’t supposed to affect Cristina’s status as the wife of a U.S. citizen.
After working for about seven months as a hospital dietitian in Panama City, she switched to her current position in pharmacovigilance (drug safety) with U.S.-based Johnson and Johnson which had a major division in her home city.
Once things settle down from the pandemic and their petition is eventually approved, Cristina and Kenny plan to purchase a home near his new job with Texas Scottish Rite Hospital’s Frisco campus. She is hopeful Johnson and Johnson will allow her to keep her job but work remotely.
Until then they can enjoy sheltering in place with his family and making the best of life together.