As she mulls over whether President Obama’s immigration plan could possibly help her, U.S. citizen Nicole Salgado cannot help but feel intense frustration.
She is exasperated with repeatedly explaining to members of Congress that it was Congress that approved a 1996 law making it impossible for her to legalize her undocumented husband of 10 years, even though she’s an American citizen who grew up near Syracuse, New York.
Salgado is also fed up with explaining why she was forced to move to Mexico eight years ago to live with her spouse, Margarito Resendiz, a construction worker she met in San Mateo County, California. He was forced to leave the United States and serve out a mandatory 10-year minimum “bar” on living in the United States. That’s a punishment he faced after the couple tried to do the “right thing” and come forward to seek legal status for Resendiz based on his marriage to Salgado.
The move to Mexico has exhausted the couple’s savings and derailed dreams. And it’s left them struggling to eke out enough of a living in Mexico to raise the couple’s now 4-year-old daughter, who is also a U.S. citizen. At 36, Salgado has patched together gigs teaching English. But she’s been unable to make consistent use of her Cornell University education and her master’s degree in teaching science from California’s San Jose State University.
“Living down here in exile,” she said, “I have lost a lot of faith in our U.S. system.”
Salgado is one of hundreds of thousands of Americans married to undocumented people who have moved abroad to stay with their spouses, suffered through separation from them, or lived in constant fear that their spouses will be discovered and deported. These families are wondering if they’ll benefit from Obama’s executive action to temporarily legalize undocumented immigrants with close ties to Americans.
Obama is expected to announce plans in broad strokes Thursday night in a speech. The expectation is that he will spare certain undocumented immigrants with U.S.-born children or U.S. spouses from deportation, as media have reported. But the fine details of the plan will be of utmost importance, especially to people like Salgado, whose husband is already outside the country after voluntarily leaving to serve his bar. He cannot get a visa to return unless reforms to the law are made or Obama uses his power to provide a humanitarian path for his return. Other foreign spouses have been deported after their marriages, and now have records that could also complicate their return.
As the Center for Public Integrity and KQED Radio reported in 2012, some of these couples were torn apart after they discovered that Congress had created obscure but harsh penalties specifically to punish undocumented people who seek green cards after marriage—no matter if those marriages are legitimate and couples already have children together.
Couples have been shocked to discover that the undocumented spouse must first comply with a minimum 10-year bar before trying to get permanent residency or a “green card.” Some foreign spouses have been slapped with 20-year bars or lifetime bars if they have a deportation in their history or were accused of falsely claiming to be a legal resident at some point.
In Resendiz’s case, because he had a prior deportation before marrying, he faced a permanent bar with an option to request a pardon—no guarantees—after 10 years. The application for the pardon will likely cost at least $10,000 between filing fees and lawyer’s costs. That’s $10,000 that Salgado doesn’t have now and doesn’t think she will have in the near future.
In August, Salgado posted a letter she sent to Obama imploring him to be sure to take into consideration the plight of American citizens like her if he presses forward with executive action.
Salgado expressed concern about a backlash from Congress in reaction to any executive action. But she said she and other Americans are suffering from separation or exile—or the anxiety of their spouses being deported—and they need relief from the stalemate over immigration reform in Washington.
“Be as creative as possible,” Salgado wrote to Obama, “and use the full extent of your powers to take the lead in finding a way to include my family—my husband—and hundreds of thousands of our American families in that vision, and in any executive action you take on immigration, so we do not have to make the decision between family and country anymore.”
Salgado co-wrote a book about her experiences called Amor and Exile and launched a campaign to deliver it to members of Congress in 2013. She also belongs to a network called American Families United, which has been lobbying Congress and attempting to push forward bills to modify a complex web of penalties and give immigration officials more latitude to exempt couples.
In CPI and KQED’s investigation, “Separated by Law,” Americans told stories of their family life shattered and their lives impoverished by penalties that were suggested to Congress as a way to deter illegal immigration through example. There is no evidence that the penalties have had any impact on dissuading people from illegal immigration.
As CPI reported, Los Angeles resident Chris Xitco thought he could still legalize his wife by simply taking her down to a federal immigration center and signing her up and paying a fine. To his dismay, she was given a 10-year bar during an interview that had to be conducted in Juarez, Mexico, at a U.S. consulate. The couple had received no prior warning this could happen, and they had a new baby. Xitco’s wife, Delia, is still living south of Tijuana, Mexico, in a gated house where Xitco fears for the family’s safety and visits on weekends.
San Diego resident T.J. Barbour, a software engineer, found out about the bars after he married and decided against filing for his wife Mayte’s green card. But after she was stopped by a police officer for driving too slowly, she was held in detention for six months while the couple tried to obtain asylum for Mayte. Immigration agents dumped Mayte in Tijuana after she lost her case without even a warning phone call to Barbour. The couple’s son was 9 at the time and has suffered losing his mother’s care.
North Carolina native Anita Mann moved to a remote area of Mexico with three small children so they could join her husband, who is still under a 10-year bar. Others who moved to Mexico, including Margo Bruemmer of New Jersey, told CPI and members of Congress about threats they and their children faced in some rural areas where they were living, including extortion and kidnapping. They implored members of Congress to reform laws to allow them to bring their spouses back.
In February 2013, during a visit to Congress, Bruemmer spoke at a press conference, saying: “I am begging for our lawmakers, in this upcoming immigration reform debate, to not forget those of us already living outside the country, already barred. Please, do not forget us.”
A Philadelphia member of American Families United, who is married with three children, said she’s worried about being left out if the Obama action does not include her husband. If she tried to legalize him, she said, the 1996 congressional mandates would require he receive a lifetime bar because he was accused of attempting to use a fake ID card years ago. The woman, who asked for anonymity, said that every day, she worries that her husband could be detected and deported. She hopes undocumented friends she has who have children with U.S. citizenship will benefit from the executive action. But she can’t bear the thought of her husband being left out of any relief because of his history long ago. “As a citizen, it’s like a twilight zone. I don’t even have words to express it,” she said.
In March 2013, Obama took a measured step for these couples by making it easier for some to apply to receive a special hardship waiver allowing the foreign spouse to return. Congress’ 1996 law does allow U.S. citizens to request such a waiver if citizens can prove they have a devastating medical condition or hardship beyond the normal suffering a spouse might experience due to separation.
Obama’s 2013 change allows couples to file for the hardship waiver before the foreign spouse leaves the country to begin serving out a bar. But the option is off-limits to people who have deportations in their past or records, like the Philadelphia woman’s husband.
Kim Anderson, president of American Families United, said her group has tried to press the White House recently to provide measures that would help their members, such as “humanitarian parole,” which could allow citizens to bring back spouses even if only on a provisional basis. The group continues to hope Congress will amend the penalties it created in 1996.
“I’ve been astounded over the years at the assumptions that you marry a U.S. citizen and get a green card. It couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Anderson, whose own marriage was crushed by the despair over separation. “You should not have to be forced between your life and your country.”