Americans in exile — will I soon be one of them?

This is one of the first news features I have read on this topic — the infamous 10-year ban. They don’t talk much about the waiver in this story, although it is mentioned as is the new pilot program to speed up processing at the Ciudad Juarez consulate. The couples mentioned here apparently had their waivers denied or were ineligible (very likely because the spouse is military in the first story and it is unlikely he would have been denied unless the wife was ineligible). “Ineligible” probably means she crossed the border more than once, and therefore has a 10-year-ban with no waiver available. Normally I post links, but this story requires registration on the San Francisco Bee site to read, so I thought I would copy it.

U.S. citizens’ foreign spouses sent abroad by immigration law

By Susan Ferriss – Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, May 5, 2007

Jose Luis Negrete was one of the first Marines to roll into Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War, and one of the first to hit the Somali beach in 1992.

Nothing from war, however, could prepare Negrete for the battle he’s waging against a U.S. immigration policy that prevents his wife from being with him in the United States.

Jenni Negrete was barred from this country for 10 years after admitting she lived in the United States illegally for at least a year before marrying Jose.

Today, she is back in Mexico in her fourth year of exile after U.S. officials refused her request for legal residency, and her subsequent appeal.

And Negrete, 37, is living the life of a single father caring for his two sons, 7 and 5, in a community near Clear Lake in rural Northern California.

“I was in the Gulf War,” Negrete said in an interview at the home that he built for the wife who still hasn’t seen it. “I was in Somalia. I don’t deserve this.”

Negrete’s quest to bring Jenni home, he said, is straining his belief in the inherent good of the United States. Thousands share his frustration. Get-tough immigration statutes designed to punish illegal entry into this country are — in some cases — disrupting households, straining family finances — and, at times, leaving children coping with the absence of a parent.

Interviews lead to penalties

Most Americans take it for granted that if a foreigner marries a U.S. citizen, that person will likely be welcomed with legal residency. This hasn’t been true since 2001, when federal statutes adopted in 1996 began kicking in.

Now, if a U.S. citizen or legal resident wants to sponsor a spouse or other close relative for legal residency, the process could end up banishing the sponsored relative.

To seek a green card, or legal residency, foreign relatives who entered the United States without permission must return to their home country to submit to an interview at a U.S. consulate.

Then, they must disclose if they spent any time in this country without proper documentation.

Penalties are steep. Undocumented immigrants who lived in the U.S. for one year before marrying are barred from re-entry for 10 years. Those who spent between 6 months and a year here illegally are barred from returning to the U.S. for five years.

Moreover, spouses who are caught lying about being in the U.S. illegally face the possibility of being banned from the country for the rest of their lives.

Congress approved these measures in 1996 as part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act, meant to deter illegal immigration. In large part, the intent was to send a message that marrying a legal resident was not a means of erasing the violation of coming to this country illegally.

Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley, who had a role in authoring the law, supports its penalties and wants to see them extended to foreigners who come legally to the United States, overstay their visas and then marry.

“The way to avoid the consequences is to obey the law,” Gallegly said in a statement from Washington, D.C. The provisions “were incorporated to provide consequences for breaking U.S. laws.”

In Negrete’s view, the law does little to address the roots of illegal immigration: the appetite that some U.S. employers have for the labor of immigrant workers.

Because the Negretes wanted their sons educated in the United States, the boys see Jenni only during school breaks when their father takes them to Mexico.

“One of them cries himself to sleep every night. I hear him,” Negrete said. “They think we’re getting divorced. They don’t understand this immigration stuff.”

‘Hardship waivers’ scarce

Occasionally, officials do grant what are called “hardship waivers,” but family suffering caused by “mere separation” is not sufficient to qualify for the waiver. Jenni Negrete was denied her waiver request.

Genero Martinez, of San Leandro, breaks down when he recounts how his wife, Maria, was barred in 2002 and remains in her native El Salvador with their younger son, now 4.

His older son, Gene, 8, returned to the United States after he became ill from his living conditions in Central America, Martinez said.

“He was sleeping in a room with 10 people, and had to go to the bathroom in a hole in the ground,” Martinez said.

Martinez said he refinanced his San Leandro home to raise $75,000 to manage two households, legal expenses, Gene’s day care and medical bills. The cash, he said, is nearly gone.

He lost a $47,000-a-year job with health insurance because his family crisis was so disruptive, Martinez said. He refuses to enroll Gene in taxpayer-funded health insurance for kids, though, because he fears Maria would be labeled “a public burden,” jeopardizing her case.

Affected families mobilize

To bring attention to the phenomenon, several families have formed a group called American Families United, and hired a firm to lobby Congress.

The number of people barred from the United States under the policy is growing. Since 2000, 21,500 have been prohibited from returning for a decade. In 2006, the annual tally nearly doubled over the year before to 13,209.

The impact of the law is particularly strong in California, where marriage between illegal immigrants and citizens or legal residents is hardly unheard of.

Sally Gutierrez, 51, a Sacramento state government worker, married Antonio, 58, a gardener and roofer who had fixed her house. It took him two years to get an interview lined up with the U.S. Consulate in Mexico. He was rejected.

Gutierrez said she feels betrayed by the policy. “I got a simple gardener, but he’s a good one, and I fell in love with him,” she said.

Gaby de la Torre, who runs a day care center in Sacramento, said it took four years to get her husband an interview in 2005 in Mexico. He was allowed to remain in the United States while waiting for his appointment, but blocked from returning after the interview. A pardon was denied.

De la Torre said her husband had been in the United States since he was 17, almost a decade, and still has a job with health insurance waiting for him. “They’re not getting any benefit from this,” she said of Congress. “They’re hurting us, U.S. citizens, their own people.”

With her husband gone and de la Torre facing financial pressures, she sold their house and moved in with her parents.

‘Forcing citizens into exile’

Jessica Vaughan,a policy analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., which favors reducing immigration, supports the regulations.

“This is one of the very few penalties we have to punish illegal immigration,” Vaughan said. She agreed that U.S. citizens face “difficult choices.”

Jerald Peterson is a retired Central Intelligence Agency officer whose son-in-law is currently barred from the United States because he was here illegally before marrying Peterson’s daughter.

In an interview from his home in Oklahoma, Peterson said he wrote a letter to President Bush last December to complain about the restrictions.

“It’s basically forcing U.S. citizens into exile,” Peterson said. His daughter, Ellie Vega, ended up moving to Mexico with her husband and baby.

Vega grew up in Mexico and France, and met her husband while working as a translator at a plant nursery in Oklahoma.

In his letter to the president, Peterson wrote, “For years, the U.S. turned a blind eye to Mexicans illegally entering the U.S … to satisfy a demand for workers. After 9/11 we had to focus on the problem of illegals,” he said. But now, he said, U.S. citizens have become “collateral damage.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, plans to review the restrictions on spouses of legal residents, which she called “an experiment.” She is chairing hearings in the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.

“Who is being punished here?” Lofgren said. “Is it the Americans? It looks like it is.”

In the Mexican border city of Cuidad Juarez, where U.S. officials process more green cards than in any other foreign post, the volume of waiver requests ballooned recently to 700 to 1,000 a month.

Warren Jannsen, the officer in charge of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services there, said the increase was so overwhelming he began an ambitious pilot program in March to try to review waivers the same day they are filed.

In the past, Jannsen said, more than half of waiver requests processed in his office have been approved.

Separation stops support

After several years of waiting, Jessica Ramirez of Sacramento learned recently that her husband’s waiver request had been denied.

She gave her up studies at California State University, Sacramento, and quit a public-health job to look for work in Mexico with her husband, Pedro. She said she couldn’t find anything that paid more than $40 a week.

Returning home with their two children, ages 3 and 1, Ramirez is $10,000 in debt. She inquired about public assistance, but then was able to find a job as an office temp.

“They asked me all this information about child support, as if he were running away from us,” Ramirez said. “I told them, ‘I can tell you exactly where he is. He’s in Mexico. It’s not like he doesn’t want to support us. The government won’t let him support us.'”

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4 Responses to Americans in exile — will I soon be one of them?

  1. Relando Shaun Williams says:

    Hello Laura,

    I’m a US citizen married to a Mexican national as well. I am really glad that I came across your site; because it has led me to a wealth of information that I had not seen before. Naturally, I signed the petition to have families reunited and I’ve been doing a lot of research in the Immigrate2US forums. I can hardly think of anything I have encountered that has been as maddening as dealing with this. Hopefully there is more to life than being exiled. I wish you the best of luck if you haven’t received it already.

    -Shaun

  2. laurafern says:

    Hi Shaun and welcome! It makes me so happy when someone stumbles through here and finds I2US or just a general commonality of experience. Glad to make your acquaintance!

  3. Arnold says:

    I know that it’s not an answer, but is it an option for people in this situation to move together to Canada? ie will Canada accept the US citizen plus their spouse?

    Also, given that the IRS appears to consider you legally bound to declare taxes forever if you’re a US citizen, is there potential scope to use this to put pressure on “someone” to resolve this issue? I’m not American but if the same situation arose for me I know that I would be darned sure I’d not be paying any more taxes whilst in exile.

    We might complain about the level of bureaucracy in France sometimes (well, often), but at least if we get married here, the spouse (regardless of nationality) has the automatic right to remain.

  4. […] would have planned, or hoped, it to be. What is not often told in the corporate media are the American families who are broken up because of our ineffective system. As US lawmakers grapple with a long awaited […]

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