I never thought I’d have the pleasure of writing this, but the Obama Administration proposed an immigration rule change Friday that will relieve the suffering of hundreds of thousands of families with mixed citizenship in the United States. The impact will especially be felt along the U.S.-Mexico border where a large number of mixed citizenship families reside.
Since stiffer immigration laws passed in 1996, undocumented spouses or children of U.S. citizens can’t become legal residents — and eventually U.S. citizens — without leaving the country first to petition for a waiver from a three-to-10-year ban on entering the country.
The length of the ban depends on how long they’ve resided in the United States without legal entry documents.
Many times reentry into the United States is denied anyway. People waiting for their paperwork to be processed in places like Ciudad Juarez—where most Mexican immigration cases are processed—have been plunged into nightmare scenarios of extortions and kidnappings in the violent city. In other cases, families have filed for bankruptcy after a spouse has had to move back to his or her home country, or they’ve endured medical crises while separated.
David Leopold, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, calls the current process “A bizarre Catch-22. Undocumented spouses are eligible for legal status, but if they leave the country to apply for it they are barred from reentry to the United States.”
So, most families never go as far as applying to fix a spouse or child’s legal status once they hear it will mean being separated for years. And even if they do go overseas, they might be barred from coming back.
Now the new rule will allow families to petition for the waiver while residing in the United States. As before, only those who do not have criminal records can obtain the waiver. They must also prove that their absence will create an “extreme hardship” for their citizen spouse or parent. Then they can return to their home countries to apply for their visas, which should only take weeks instead of years. And they won’t risk being denied reentry into the United States.
Eleanor Pelta, the current president of AILA, called the change “smart enforcement” in a press statement.
“It’s a move that will be less destructive to families and bring about a fairer and more streamlined waiver process. Right now people who have accumulated unlawful presence in the U.S. who leave the country to apply for a green card have to wait abroad, often for months or years,” Pelta said.
“This adjustment to the rule is important because it will literally save lives. Unfortunately, most waiver applications are filed in Ciudad Juarez on the U.S.-Mexico border, an extremely dangerous city these days, and more than one applicant has been murdered or seriously harmed while waiting there.”
Hopefully, it will bring many families out of the shadows. I think of one 16-year-old teenager I met in Reynosa in 2010 while reporting my story on unaccompanied minors. Pedro was living at a government shelter in the border town trying to get back to his family on the U.S. side of the river. He’d endured intimidation from drug gangs, a near drowning in the Rio Grande and had already depleted his family’s savings paying smugglers. His family lived just 35 miles away in Harlingen but it seemed like another world.
His stepfather was a U.S. citizen but his mother didn’t file for legal residency because she would have to return to Mexico and more than likely be barred from re-entry and her other children. And so his family was trapped. If this rule had been enacted years ago, Pedro would never have found himself desperate and alone in a Reynosa immigrant shelter. He would have been a high school student living in Harlingen with his family. He more than likely would have been a legal resident. I don’t know if Pedro ever made it home, but I hope he did. Ultimately, this simple rule change will be about saving lives, literally.