A Royal Mess

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He was the son of a Las Vegas cement truck driver and became a lance corporal in the U.S. Marines. She was Arab royalty, born to a world of servants and limousines, a world where women who date non-Muslims are often considered prostitutes. And then they fell in love.

Jason Johnson, 25, met Meriam Al-Khalifa, 19, in a shopping mall last year during his tour of duty in Bahrain, a tiny country off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Their love became so strong — and so forbidden — that Al-Khalifa was confined to her house; she contacted Johnson through secret letters. Then last November, when his tour was over, the couple sneaked out of Bahrain on a commercial jet with Al-Khalifa disguised as a Marine, her hair tucked into a New York Yankees baseball cap. They landed in Chicago, only to meet the stateside heavies: the Immigration and Naturalization Service had been alerted by Bahrain and had been requested to send the woman back immediately. Al-Khalifa in turn claimed asylum. If sent home, she said, she would face ostracism, persecution, even death.

Despite pressure from Bahrain, a close strategic ally, the State Department insists it advised the INS to judge the case on its own merits. To stay, Mrs. Johnson (the couple married in Las Vegas, celebrating with a honeymoon dinner at Taco Bell) will have to demonstrate that she has a well-founded fear that her life is in danger. A Bahraini spokesman says, "The family still loves her. It is hard to believe she will go to jail." Even if the couple wins, Jason Johnson fears animosity from Arab traditionalists. He told TIME, "It will probably never be really over." And Hollywood has already purchased rights to the tale.

--Reported by Ann Blackman/Washington and Ann Costello/San Diego