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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.

By Staff writer / February 14, 2013

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, seen here on Capitol Hill in Washington earlier this month, is a top immigration reform advocate in Congress.

Susan Walsh/AP

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Washington

It sounds like a Valentine's Day love story. With a little help from a Spanish-English dictionary, Margot Bruemmer, a graduate student waiting tables at a New Jersey country club to help pay for school, falls in love with Osmark, a cook at the club.

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The two get married by the local mayor in Long Branch, N.J., and then the couple tries to get Osmark, an undocumented immigrant, right with the law.

But US law requires nearly all those who wish to adjust their citizenship status to apply from abroad, and those who have been in the country illegally for more than a year are barred from reentering the US for 10 years after they exit the country. So Osmark, who came to the US as a teen, faced a choice: Stay in the US illegally or return to Mexico and wait for a green card.

Now, more than eight years into what Margot calls an “exile,” the couple and their two young daughters live in Veracruz, Mexico, where they’ve missed a litany of Thanksgivings, birthdays, weddings back in America, as well as the death of Margot’s grandparents.

Marriages between US citizens and those without legal status put thousands of Americans and, in some cases, their US citizen children, into a situation like the Bruemmers' every year.

As Congress digs into the details of immigration reform, such cases show both the legal complexity and emotional impact of deciding how a government bureaucracy should handle affairs of the heart.

“The American public does not understand this situation,” says Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, a leading immigration reform advocate in the House who met with Margot and two dozen other impacted individuals on Thursday. “When the government gets between two people who are in love with one another and who consecrate that love through marriage, and they get in the way, there is something fundamentally wrong.”

The policy of barring undocumented immigrants from adjusting their status while in the country was built into a 1996 law that aimed to deter illegal immigration.

Many lawmakers say preventing illegal immigrants from adjusting their status from within the United States helps make up for a lack of immigration enforcement. If the federal government can’t or won’t remove undocumented individuals, the logic goes, they will have to remove themselves in order to obtain permanent status.  

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