Americans whose spouses have been exiled for years as a result of strict immigration penalties took their plight to Congress Thursday, begging legislators to help them as lawmakers discuss overhauling immigration laws.
Some of the affected families met with a key figure in the immigration fight, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. , who told them that he believes there is a new bipartisan spirit in Congress, and a readiness to eliminate at least some of the mandatory penalties Congress approved in 1996. Members who approved the punitive laws in 1996 said they wanted to try to deter illegal immigration by punishing offenders more harshly. The penalties have split up families for years at a time.
The punishments, mandatory terms of exile known as "bars," must be imposed on an undocumented spouse when he or she tries to go through the process of becoming a legal resident. Americans have a right to sponsor foreign spouses for legal residency, but their citizenship does not trump the penalties Congress currently requires be handed down.
Thousands of Americans' spouses - many of them parents of children who are U.S. citizens - have received these bars since they started kicking in, after delays, around 2002. A basic bar ousts spouses for 10 years. But some spouses have been barred for 20 years, even for life with no possibility of return.
On Thursday, affected Americans with small children told Gutierrez of relocating to Mexico to reunite with spouses. They complained of multiple hardships, including health problems and threats of kidnapping and extortion.
"What devastation," Gutierrez said, calling the bars "cruel" and "fundamentally wrong" because they force a U.S. citizen to raise children alone, without a spouse, or face exile to keep a family together. Gutierrez sits on the House Judiciary Committee and its House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, key forums where negotiations over immigration proposals will likely occur.
Los Angeles resident Chris Xitco, whose story was featured in a recent Center for Public Integrity report on the bars, traveled to the Capitol to participate in the Thursday press event. It was organized by American Families United, a group urging Congress to make changes that would reunite families and put more flexibility into immigration penalties.
Xitco met with aides to his two senators, California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as with an aide to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who could be critical to mustering GOP support for immigration reform. Rubio's press secretary did not respond to requests for comment.
"I don't know how optimistic I can get," said Xitco, 49, who fears for the safety of his wife Delia and their two small children, who live south of Tijuana, and whom he visits on weekends.
His wife, whom he married in Los Angeles in 2002, was barred at least until 2018, a punishment meted out because she had crossed the border a second time after getting caught once. She received a lifetime bar that can only be appealed after 10 years.
Margot Bruemmer, 40, of New Jersey, recounted moving to a rural area in Mexico's Veracruz state after her husband was barred in 2005.
The couple has two children, ages two and four. Bruemmer said her lawyer failed to warn the couple that her husband would end up barred for at least 10 years when she tried to legalize him after marrying. Because he had crossed the border more than once, he too was given a lifetime bar that can only be appealed after a decade.
Bruemmer and her husband received news that he would be barred as others have -back in his home country, at a U.S. consulate, where undocumented immigrants are required to report for a legal-residency interview as a last step before getting green cards.
"I cried, and I begged," Bruemmer said, remembering when the U.S. consular officer in Juarez, Mexico, gave the couple the shocking news that her husband was barred.
Bruemmer said her children have to sleep under a mosquito net and live with the threat of catching a fever. But she loves her husband and wants to keep the family together.
"I want my daughters to grow up the way I grew up," Bruemmer said. She said her husband is eking out a living running a store. Because she is an American, she said, her family has become a target, and has been threatened with kidnapping and extortion.
"I am begging for our lawmakers, in this upcoming immigration reform debate, to not forget those of us already living outside the country, already barred," Bruemmer said. "Please, do not forget us."
In the 1996 legislation, Congress did include a system of hardship waivers that can shorten bars for some affected families. But that's an option only if the undocumented spouse entered and resided illegally in the United States once, without multiple crossings.
In addition, up to now, spouses have only been able to apply for hardship waivers after they have been barred and are outside the United States. There are no guarantees that waivers, which are notoriously difficult to argue, will be approved. Thousands have been rejected, and many families have waited for months, or years, for word on applications.
Americans' complaints about lengthy separations have resulted in some changes.
Starting in March, under order by President Obama, undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens will be allowed to apply for hardship waivers before going to their final residency interview back in their home countries. Rep. Lamar Smith, at the time the GOP chair of the House Judiciary Committee, denounced Obama's change on the waiver procedure.
"Who is the president batting for - illegal immigrants or the American people?" Smith said in a statement. He was the author of the 1996 immigration reform.
But Obama's waiver change won't help Xitco, Bruemmer or Edgar Falcon, a citizen from El Paso, Texas, who also traveled to Capitol Hill this week.
Falcon's wife, Maricruz, 24, has been barred for life, and now lives in Durango, Mexico. She arrived in the United States when she 16, brought in illegally by family members. Because her sister used a false ID to enter, a U.S. consular official decided Maricruz must have used one as well, Falcon said.
"I thought there was a waiver for teens," Falcon said. After Maricruz was barred, Falcon contacted his congressional representatives, but received no reply. "They turned their back on me," the 27-year-old said.
Gutierrez said he has been contacted by many Americans with barred spouses, and many others who are too afraid to try to legalize their spouses.
"The American public does not understand this situation," Gutierrez said. But he sees potential allies for reform among some Republicans, he said, including Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former vice presidential contender, and Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. Gutierrez said he met with Rubio for an hour recently, and has also discussed the situation with Ryan.
Kathy McGroarty, 36, a resident of Chicago, read an emotional statement Thursday while at the Capitol, recounting how she and husband tried to live in Mexico after he was barred nearly a decade ago. They ended up returning to the United States - he illegally.
"For almost 10 years, my husband, Ines, and I have lived every day with the fear that our lives could be destroyed by a deportation order," McGroarty said. "We have two boys, Estevan and Diego, who have no idea that their father's immigration status could ultimately bring unbelievable heartache to our home. As far as they know, we are just another regular American family."
The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org.