A PBS NewsHour special report   |   May 13, 2012

Five Families Torn Apart By Immigration Law

Cindy Huang

By Cindy Huang

Families living in the shadows. Struggling with separation. Being forced to leave the United States.

These are the stories of mixed-status families, where one spouse is a U.S. citizen and the other lacks status. These families told the PBS NewsHour how immigration policy drastically altered their lives as lawmakers begin consideration of a comprehensive measure to overhaul the current system.

The anxiety of living in the U.S. illegally drove Francisco Ramirez to go to Mexico to ask for a pardon.

His U.S. citizen wife Cher Orlanda explains why they made the difficult decision. “We were so scared if he were to get a speeding ticket. Maybe today is the day he could be deported,” she said.

And when Ramirez never came back from Mexico, the family faced the added distress of separation from the father, husband and primary provider of the household. Ramirez is looking at a possible 10-year bar from the U.S. for living here without status for more than a decade, as laid out in the the 1996 immigration law.

That law issues:

* a 3-year bar from the U.S. for staying illegally between 180 days and a year

* a 10-year bar for staying illegally over a year

* a lifetime bar for serious offenses, such as making a false claim to citizenship

The immigration reform package being shaped on Capitol Hill, proposes families like Orlanda’s could have access to more waivers. It also proposes to lower the standards for proving hardship for waivers and possibly eliminating the three- and 10-year bars.

For Melissa Watkins, June 8, 2012, is forever burned in her memory. That’s the night that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials took her husband Onesimo away.

“Did I know my husband’s status when I married him? I did,” said Watkins. “But you just don’t have any idea that as a United States citizen that your government would take your spouse away from you.”

She and her young daughter, both American citizens, followed him to Mexico City after he was deported.

According to Shiu-Ming Cheer, an immigration lawyer from the National Immigration Law Center, people in Watkins’ situation are surprised to find there’s no pardon for the spouses of U.S. citizens.

“The common sense is that a United States family member would not be deported. It’s hard to explain to people that it doesn’t happen automatically,” Cheer said. “Part of the reason is that immigration law is so technical and complicated, and everyone’s situation is different. People hear rumors in the community and in the media.”

What families can do is apply for the I-601A waiver that allows for them to stay together if they prove separation to be extremely difficult.

“If you say my employer is going to lose an employee, that you’re going to be losing a house, a car and your family. That all doesn’t count. All of these things are considered normal hardship,” said Robert Sheldon, an immigration lawyer in Miami. Extreme hardship usually means, for example, that one of the American citizens in the families has a medical condition that requires care in the country.

Before 1996, there was no punishment other than deportation for being in the country illegally, unless the immigrant committed a crime. According to Sheldon, before the 1996 immigration law passed, immigrants who came illegally would not be deported if they married a U.S. citizen.

The bars aim to serve as a deterrent for illegal immigration as well as encourage immigrants without status to leave the country. Mark Krikorian, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the 1996 bill passed because of a Republican takeover during the Clinton administration.

“There was a general consensus that our immigration system overall was full of holes.” said Krikorian. “The bill created a cost for being illegal where before it was a cost free thing.”

But Krikorian said the law has been questionably effective because there has not been law enforcement. Many of those who face deportation were apprehended as a result of traffic stops, or, like Ramirez, they voluntarily went to their home country to ask for a pardon and were refused.

The separation takes both an emotional and financial toll on Ramirez’s family. Without her husband, Orlanda has trouble making ends meet. And because Orlanda is her husband’s sponsor for a green card, she cannot be on food stamps or government assistance.

Orlanda says the separation is hardest on the kids, who are angry that their life has changed.

“I wish people knew how much pain it is for the children to go through. My kids really want to be with their dad,” Orlanda said. “I think the immigration process itself is so broken. It’s just torture on our family to make us wait.”

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    Erika Orrantia Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

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    Crystal Mendez Perkasie, Pa.

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    Melissa Watkins Mexico City

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    Cher Orlanda     Portsmouth, Va.

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    Lance Paxton Shelby Township, Mich.

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Erika Orrantia

Erika Orrantia's husband was issued a lifetime bar from the U.S. with no chance for a waiver because he made a false claim to citizenship when he was 23 years old. Orrantia, who is a U.S. citizen, now lives in Ciudad Juarez with her husband and children.

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Crystal Mendez

Crystal Mendez's husband is barred from the U.S. for 10 years for living in the country illegally for more than a year. His bar is unwaivable for five years because he missed a court date. Mendez lives in Perkasie, Pa., with her son, both citizens, and her husband lives the Dominican Republic. She visits him a few times per year.

Melissa Watkins

Melissa Watkins' husband was deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. Both U.S. citizens, Watkins and her daughter moved to Mexico City to be with him as he completes his 10-year bar. They will be applying for the I-601 waiver soon.

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Cher Orlanda

U.S. citizen Cher Orlanda lives in Portsmouth, Va., with her children. Her husband is currently barred for 10 years. He lives in Mexico.

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Lance Paxton

U.S. citizen Lance Paxton lives in Shelby Township, Mich. His wife lives in Mexico with their children. She is serving a lifetime ban for making a false claim to citizenship.

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