Monday, August 20, 2007

Immigration law trumps love

Aug. 19, 2007
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal

Immigration law trumps love

When U.S. citizens marry illegal immigrants, someone gets left out

Isaias Sosa, a U.S. citizen, holds his daughter, 4-year-old Aliyah, and a photo that includes his wife Nancy at his Las Vegas home. Nancy is living in Mexico after being barred from re-entering the United States for a decade because she had lived in the country illegally.
Photo by John Locher.

When Isaias Sosa first met the woman who would become his wife, he didn't think to ask about her immigration status.

Instead, he thought about how pretty her eyes were.

"They're tiny, like our daughter's are now," he said recently while looking at a photo of Nancy Sosa at his east Las Vegas home. "When she laughs, they kind of disappear."

When Sosa found out, months later, that Nancy was living illegally in the United States, he was already head over heels. It wouldn't have mattered, anyway. "For me, love doesn't matter what situation you're in," he said.

But the Sosas soon realized that love doesn't trump U.S. immigration laws.

The couple, who married five years ago, are now living nearly 2,000 miles apart because of those laws. Their 4-year-old daughter, Aliyah, is sometimes handed off between parents just south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

And, like many other families of mixed-immigration status who are in similar situations, the Sosas' future together is uncertain.

"It's been really, really hard. We don't want to be apart," Sosa, 24, said not long before his latest trip with Aliyah to Tijuana, where they were scheduled to meet Nancy, also 24.

But Sosa doesn't see much choice.

In 2006, Nancy was officially barred from re-entering the United States for a decade. If she does come back and is caught, she could be deported and never be able to legally re-enter the country.

She and Sosa, a U.S. citizen, had decided she should get legal status for the sake of their daughter, also a U.S. citizen.

"A lawyer told us she had to leave or could be deported," Sosa said. "We decided she should leave on her own. It would be better to do it now than later."

The couple believed since they were married and had a daughter together, Nancy would be able to come back to Las Vegas soon enough.

So in 2005, Nancy, who had been brought by her parents to the United States as a teenager, moved back to her central Mexican hometown of Toluca.

Sosa sometimes regrets they tried to make things right. "We didn't think this would happen," he said. "We were trying to do something good, but it's just been a whole lot of bad."

Current immigration law requires a person to make a lawful entry into the United States in order to adjust to legal permanent resident status.

Someone who entered the United States illegally would have to leave the country and then come back.

The problem Nancy and others encounter is they are barred from re-entering the United States for certain lengths of time because they lived illegally in the country.

It doesn't matter whether the person is married to a U.S. citizen, has American children, or has lived in the United States for years.

Those who stayed in the United States illegally for less than a year can be barred from re-entering for three years. Those who stayed more than a year can be barred for 10.

It wasn't always that way. At one time, those who had entered the country illegally but could come up with a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident "sponsor" -- a spouse, family member or employer -- could pay a fine and get legal status. But that option only applied to those who filed for legal status before April 2001.

There are a few exceptions to the "really complicated" immigration laws that bar certain people from re-entering the United States, said Marie Sebrechts, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services.

If someone can prove their absence from the United States will result in "extreme hardship" for a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, such as a spouse, parent or child, they could be granted a waiver though a U.S. consulate in Mexico.

The waivers are given on a case-by-case basis, Sebrechts said. She wouldn't give an example of who might qualify for a waiver.

Immigration attorneys say the waivers have become harder and harder to get in recent years. They're not sure why, but some attribute the difficulty to growing anti-illegal immigrant sentiment in the United States.

Some say applying for such waivers is akin to playing "Mexican roulette."

"But it really could be any country," said attorney Vicenta Montoya. "They (the waivers) are not being granted or are being granted arbitrarily."

Immigration attorneys say the odds of being granted a hardship waiver are best if applicants can prove they need to be in the United States to care for a seriously ill American citizen spouse or relative. But even that isn't guaranteed.

"It depends on who (which immigration official) you see on that particular day," Montoya said. "It depends on whether you get a harsh person or an easy person."

Since 2001, "thousands upon tens of thousands of people have no mechanism" to get legal status, said Jerry Stuchiner, an immigration attorney.

Stuchiner has gone so far as to recommend that his clients remain in the United States, even illegally, rather than risk being barred from returning.

"Most choose to go, against my better judgment, because they don't want to be illegal," he said.

Montoya said the arbitrariness with which waivers are granted leaves her with no clear way to tell whether clients might be granted a waiver or might instead be exiled outside the United States for up to 10 years.

"You are talking about families who are being separated," Montoya said. "We're talking about U.S. citizens who are directly impacted. Citizens who can't understand why they have to be separated" from their loved ones.

Montoya is trying to help those who are in similar situations by lobbying for a change in the law. She's hoping to persuade lawmakers to amend a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act to renew the previous option of allowing those who are illegally in the country and who have a sponsor to pay a fine to adjust their status.

Montoya has contacted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other legislators about the issue.

Reid is supportive of Montoya's idea, said his spokesman, Jon Summers.

"He's supportive of any legislation that fixes our broken immigration system and brings 12 million people out of the shadows," Summers said.

Despite ongoing, tense national immigration reform debates, Montoya thinks she has a good chance of eventually getting the law changed.

"They just need to move it to the present time," she said. "This could have an effect on a million people who are relatives of citizens and who are really afraid of going to their home countries."

It's a hope Isaias Sosa shares. His wife applied for a waiver at the U.S. consulate in Juarez, Mexico, in late 2005, with the idea that being separated from her and their daughter equated to an "extreme hardship" for Sosa. Nine months later, she was told her waiver had been denied, and that she was not allowed to re-enter the United States for 10 years.

Through an attorney, the couple is appealing that decision.

In the meantime, whenever he has enough money and time off from his job as a bellman in a local casino, Sosa is able to spend a week or two with his wife and daughter in Mexico.

He has managed to see his wife about every six months and send $600 a month to support her and Aliyah. Meanwhile, he worries.

"Mexico's not safe," he said. "Every day I'm wondering whether they are OK. It scares me."

Sosa also worries that immigration reform might make things even harder for his family.

"As I watch that stuff on the news, it scares me. It could ruin everything for us."

He says Aliyah also is having a difficult time with the separation.

"She's always crying for her mom when she's here and for me when she's there," he said. "I don't think it's good for her."

When asked whether he and Nancy ever thought about her returning to the United States illegally, he nods.

"It drives a lot of people to do things illegally, because it's separating families."

Sosa hasn't accepted the idea that Nancy may be stuck in Mexico for years.

If that does happen, he'll consider moving there. But, he said, it would be difficult to support his family in Mexico.

The possibility is something he never imagined he'd face.

"My wife is a good person, and we're trying to be a family. I never thought dealing with immigration laws would be part of my life."

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