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.

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

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.

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.  

“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.

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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