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Immigration reform's tough call: illegal immigrants married to US citizens

Illegal immigrants who want to legalize their status must leave the country for as many as 10 years to apply. That's too harsh on those who marry spouses who are US citizens, critics say.

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“I don’t know if this topic about or a three- or a 10-year bar has any meaning, considering [the federal government is not] enforcing the law in so many other areas,” says Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa.

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Margot says she isn't blind to the fact that her husband entered the country illegally. Rather, she sees the issue as a question of degree: “The punishment,” she says, “does not fit the crime.”

That was a sentiment echoed among many of the advocates on the Hill Thursday.

“For everybody who is involved in this nightmare who is an American citizen, you believe that with marriage, you’re going to be able to resolve that problem,” said Carla Wissel of Vero Beach, Fla., whose husband, Rafael, has obtained permanent legal status in the US. “It’s just such a shock. It comes as such a terrible, terrible shock.”

For lawmakers like Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, the law must be upheld.

"No one wants families to be split up. But there must be some deterrent to illegal behavior or everyone would break the law," he said in an e-mailed statement.

Legal immigrants "followed our laws and waited in line (sometimes years) to come to the U.S.," Smith said. "The 3-10 year ban is a deterrent to illegal immigration. It ensures that illegal immigrants, like millions of legal immigrants, wait in line before they enter the U.S.”

House lawmakers, who have been tight-lipped on their immigration deliberations, are at the “conversation” stage of working through potential fixes for immigrants like Osmark. (Undocumented immigrants currently in the country would have some pathway to at least legal status, according to lawmakers in both chambers, and so would theoretically not face the same issue that Osmark is facing.)

Fixes to the system could include allowing immigrants like Osmark to return to the US at least until final adjudication or expanding applications for “extreme hardship” waivers to include marriages and situations involving children who are US citizens.

Until then, however, undocumented persons and their US citizen spouses are stuck in a Catch-22: leave the country and pray the government approves a hardship waiver or stay in the US fearing deportation.

“It stands to reason that the very cases that most strongly support a waiver – in which the US citizen or [permanent resident] spouse or parent would most clearly suffer ‘extreme hardship’ are those in which the visa beneficiary is most reluctant to leave,” noted a 2011 Migration Policy Institute paper.

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