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No Matter What

August 2, 2010

by Immigrant Friend

I am married to an “illegal immigrant.” That is the title given to my husband by the media. That is how he is known.
He is more than this title.

My husband has lived in the US for 20 years. In that time, he has become an active and essential participant and servant in his community. He has mastered English. He has worked unbelievably hard, both to the benefit of himself and his handful of employers. Over the past number of years, he has become my best friend, and a friend to many, many people.
When it comes to US immigration law, none of this matters. My husband is an “illegal immigrant.” According to the INS, he is little else.

Overhanging our lives in the US is a law, a law that keeps us living in the moment. For many couples in our situation, the law makes uncertainty a certainty.

On April 1, 1997 the law went into effect. Thirteen years have passed, yet most people do not know about it. The law is called a “permanent bar” and it has a number: I.N.A 212(a)(9)(C), 8 U.S.C 1182(a)(9)(C). According to the permanent bar law, a person who unlawfully spends a cumulative total of one year or more in the US then exits the country and unlawfully returns, or attempts to unlawfully return and is apprehended, will never, according to the law, be granted a US green card.

Never, meaning never. Permanent, meaning permanent.

Since this bar was enacted in 1997, those who fall under the definition of the law can never, under any circumstances, receive a green card in the US (1).

The permanent bar law, and the lack of awareness of this law, is troubling in many ways. Most troubling is that the law applies to most immigrants who come to the United States via the southern border. A large majority have spent more than a year in the US, left at some point, and been caught attempting to return unlawfully. This scenario is not the exception, it is the norm. Furthermore, the immigration reforms being discussed by our legislators will likely not change the permanent bar law. Most Mexican, Central American, and South American immigrants to the United States are, according to law I.N.A. 212(a)(9)(C), 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(9)(C), permanently barred from receiving a US green card, and will likely continue to be barred after reforms. This is a critical piece of information everyone in the US should know, but that relatively few people know.

Relatively few immigration-reform advocates and relatively few immigrants are aware of this harsh piece of US immigration legislation.

Unfortunately, for at least ten years, the way most undocumented immigrants come to the United States via the US southern border requires repeated attempts, being apprehended at least once, and being incarcerated at least once. It is also true that most undocumented immigrants living in the US stay for more than a year (cumulative total of visits), and that they return home at some point before entering the US unlawfully again. Immigrants are compelled to return home due to family illness or other crises, due to a death in the family, or to visit children remaining in their home countries. These realities coupled with the permanent bar law create a nearly impossible situation for undocumented Latino immigrants living in the United States. This is true no matter how much they contribute to their communities as volunteers and helpers, no matter how upright they are as individuals, no matter how hard they strive to learn English, no matter if they pay taxes, no matter if they are married to US spouses and have multiple US-citizen children. No matter what.

This is why couples like me and my husband pray for a miracle. In light of the permanent bar, a miracle is what we will need. God makes the impossible possible.

Notes. (1) The one exception to the permanent bar is if an applicant can prove “extreme hardship” for his or her US citizen family members should he/she be forced to leave the US. Extreme hardship usually means that the US citizen spouse suffers severe, debilitating medical problems that would make overseas visits impossible.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary Hopkins permalink
    August 2, 2010 9:04 pm

    Thanks for this post, Friend. It’s good to know there are others out there who understand.

    The bars are in fact very broad. It’s true that many migrants are caught coming in & count as re-entering deportees. That’s very harsh indeed.

    It’s also the case that anyone who’s worked for a year without docs — even if they were not caught and deported on the way in — is under a 10-year bar. This is true of almost everyone who’s on Temporary Protected Status. This means that if you leave the country without a special license, which is hard but not impossible to get, you cannot even apply to re-enter for ten years. And if you’ve worked for six months without papers and you leave, you’re barred for three years.

    I get so very tired of hearing “Why don’t they go back home and get in line …” Never, ten years, even three years is a lot if you left because you were physically unsafe, because you want to keep your kids in school, because you need to pay someone’s medical expenses. You’re right, many people just don’t have any idea of what’s involved.

    Thanks for writing. You’re in my prayers.

  2. August 3, 2010 11:35 pm

    Great post. I’d love to hear from the author- I’m putting together a November issue of Western Friend magazine dedicated to immigration and human rights. This is a very important perspective, one I’d really like to include.

  3. Celeste permalink
    August 4, 2010 3:22 am

    Can someone plz tell me why anyone who wants to be a part of this country would not go thru the effort of becoming a citizen?

    • Mary Hopkins permalink
      August 5, 2010 9:37 pm

      It can be explained rather easily. The author of the post has explained the IIRAIRA bars, and I’ve added some information. If you’ve re-entered after deportation, you’re never formally allowed back into the US, even on a tourist visa. If you’ve worked six months or a year, the bars are 3 and 10 years, respectively. Almost everyone who is presently in the US and out of status is under at least one of these bars.

      So for someone who’s undocumented to apply for citizenship, they have to return to the place they left (usually for good reasons!), wait for a period of years, and then begin the application process.

      Here’s what the application process is like. If you have an advanced degree, wealth, or close relatives in the US who have formal status to petition for you, you can get in. It can take up to 20 years, but it can be done.

      If you do not have the above, here’s what you do: The visa application fee is almost $1000, regardless of where you’re coming from. In my spouse’s home country, this is around 150 days’ wages for most people. Unless you have family who can make you a loan, you can’t borrow this sum, the risk is too great. You have to pay this up front; it’s the cost of getting in line. Then you wait, and you pay a bunch of other fees: medical exam (hundreds of dollars), background checks, etc., many of which have to be renewed from time to time while you’re waiting. While you are in line, which you will be for a period of several years, you have to keep your nose extremely clean: No contact with police, no errors in your taxes, etc. When you get to the front of the line, you are competing with people from all over the world for 5000 visas. Your chances of getting one are way under 1%. If they say no, you go back to square one.

      If you get one of those 5000 visas, you are not a citizen. You are a Legal Permanent Resident, and you must maintain that status for a minimum of 5 years before becoming a citizen.

      Does that answer your question? Basically for anyone with an economic motive for migration, the doors are closed. Even if it can be done, it’s onerous. I’ve been a citizen petitioner for relatives; it takes years and it’s very expensive even from here. For working folks from outside the US, it’s almost impossible. Ellis Island was a walk in the park by comparison with what folks go through now.

  4. dan permalink
    August 4, 2010 7:38 pm

    If someone steals a car, he’s a thief. That’s not all he is, maybe he’s a good, generous person otherwise, but he is a thief, who broke the law, and who should be held accountable. Pro-illegal-immigration folks never want to address this principle. What I find troubling about it is the lack of respect for the law, and the apparent lack of enforcement, that allows illegal immigrants to flout the laws of our country. What I find most troubling is the vocal support this same disrespect receives in so many quarters.

  5. Marilee permalink
    August 5, 2010 9:11 pm

    Celeste: there are many reasons people choose to leave their homes and families and risk their lives to come to the US. I think the most common is economic hardship. I recently watched a fascinating documentary called De Nadie which followed South American men and women as they tried to make it through Mexico to the US. It was a very intense film, hard to watch but very powerful. Anyway, extreme poverty is what prompted most of the people in the film to undertake their journey. One woman left when her husband fell ill and couldn’t work and she was unable to feed her children.

    Too often we think of immigrants as trying to get “a better life” or “make a quick buck”. In reality, I think it is more a question of life and death. Do you act “illegally” but keep your kids from starving or follow the law of the land and slowly starve?

    Watching this film, I found myself deeply relating to the struggle of Maria, the woman whose husband was ill. The filmmakers went back to her home and filmed her family. Watching her youngest child crying for her and seeing the extreme poverty in which they lived, I felt certain that in her circumstances I would have made the exact same choice – even after seeing the horrors she experienced on her way through Mexico.

    Dan: The problem with your analogy is that it assumes a just law. I do not see car theft and illegal immigration as the same kind of crime. Primarily because I do not believe our immigration laws are just. You may disagree about the details of our laws but you must agree that simply because a human government names something “law” does not make that law just or moral. I can think of many laws throughout history I would have broken because they were immoral and, for me, much of our immigration system is similarly immoral.

    The other reason car theft and illegal immigration are different is that illegal immigration is a victimless crime. I know many imagine people streaming across the border and straight into the welfare line, thus making tax-payers the victim. But this is not the case. Most undocumented people live in such constant fear of being deported they won’t even go to the grocery store. They do not take our social security or welfare dollars. They do, however, pay into the system,contribute to the economy and provide an essential labor force for agriculture and other such work.

    So I disagree with your insinuation that those who come to this country without the proper documentation are like car thieves. They broke laws I believe to be unjust and their presence here harms no one and (in fact) probably helps our country overall.

    This is not to say I don’t support having secure borders and perhaps even some kind of fine or penalty for those found to be here illegally. But our laws must also take into account the needs we have for labor, the circumstances prompting people to migrate and that there be a path to citizenship for those who have shown themselves to be contributing, law-abiding residents of our country.

  6. Dan permalink
    August 5, 2010 11:03 pm

    How are the law unjust?

    You may want more applicants admitted, but limiting the number isn’t unjust. You may want the application process streamlined or simplified, but complicated isn’t unjust. You may disagree about the details of the laws, but not about their justness. Of course an unjust law is no law at all. Since illegal immigration does cost us lots of money, though nobody agrees on how much, it’s not a victimless crime. It’s like stealing from a big company instead of an individual. It’s patently false that illegal immigrants are so afraid of being deported they won’t even go to the grocery store. I think there’s a misconception about the kind of work illegal immigrants do and a disconnect between higher educated Americans and lower educated Americans that tends to denigrate illegal immigrants and the Americans who do the same work. Illegal immigrants don’t just pick corn; they’re landscapers, roofers, masons, carpenters, drivers, servers, housecleaners, maintenance workers, service-type workers. I worked in construction with one illegal immigrant I know of, who implied to me the presense of many others, who had gotten a driver’s license with forged documents, which is enough to get unemployment and welfare I think, and he said it was easy to do. So it’s hard to say how many are actually collecting that money. I got that job and so did he, but there were citizens who didn’t.

  7. Marilee permalink
    August 6, 2010 1:55 am

    I think there is a point that limited numbers, prohibitively complicated and expensive becomes unjust. I believe we are at that point with current US immigration law and that it needs to be reformed.

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