Center for Public Integrity by Susan Ferriss
In a nation built by immigrants, they thought they could pursue their American Dream — with loved ones at their side. Instead, they're living an American nightmare that's tearing families apart and forcing Americans into exile.
Chris Xitco, a native of Los Angeles, never imagined that after marrying his wife Delia in 2002 and trying to legalize her, she'd end up barred by U.S. officials for life, with no pardon even possible for 10 years. She now lives south of Tijuana, Mexico, alone with the couple’s two small children.
T.J. Barbour, a native of San Diego, has been struggling every day to care for a 10-year-old son, since his wife Maythe was deported and then barred from the United States in 2011 for what could be 20 years.
In central North Carolina, Anita Mann Perez has been financially ruined trying to raise three small children since her husband Jorge was exiled for 10 years in 2007. Now she's moved to Mexico to join him.
Across the country, as illegal immigrants have settled into communities, they have met Americans, fallen in love, married and had children. But when Americans have voluntarily stepped up to sponsor their spouses for legal residency, believing this was the right thing to do, they’ve been shocked to discover their citizenship does not trump mandatory penalties the spouses must face. Far from it.
These penalties, which “bar” the spouses from the U.S. for years at a time, were instituted by Congress in 1996 specifically to punish immigration-related offenses.
Since then, the law governing such situations — and the way it’s applied —has taken a number of twists and turns. Over that time period, waivers have helped many people. And in January, President Obama announced a plan to tweak the procedure by which citizens’ spouses apply for residency, a change that could eventually spare many more families from long, painful separations. But the change isn’t likely to go into effect this year, and it isn’t retroactive. And while thousands stand to benefit, thousands of others simply won’t qualify for easier access to “hardship waivers” that the president proposes — and will be trapped by the small print of the 1996 law. (SEE SIDEBAR)
Under that law, if applicants for legal residency crossed the border once, and were “unlawfully present” for more than one year, they must be issued a 10-year bar from living in the United States. They can then apply for a hardship waiver to try to return sooner and take up legal residency. If applicants have a history of entering the United States multiple times illegally, they can be barred for life — and can only pursue pardons if they remain outside the United States for five, usually 10, sometimes 20 years. Being married to an American citizen may not help at all.
To complete their application process, people who entered the United States illegally must go to their final interview at a U.S. consulate back in their home countries. Often U.S. consular officials must simply deliver the bad news immediately. And that’s that. The bar has begun, and the applicant cannot return.