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Liberty and Justice for All. . . Except Poor and Undocumented Immigrants: 1996 Immigration Act Splits Families and Hurts Battered Women

Every day thousands of immigrants enter the United States. Their reasons for coming vary, but usually they come to find work, reunite with family, and/or to escape oppressive and deadly conditions in their home lands. Some immigrants are lucky and are able to secure a visa so that they can enter the United States legally. However, many are not so blessed, and they must enter the United States “illegally.” And once these immigrants cross the border, they are forever tainted with the stigma of “illegal alien.”

“Illegal alien” is the legal term given to immigrants who enter without the proper papers or who overstay their visas. At Casa Juan Diego, we obviously see no one as illegal. We adopt the philosophy of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel when he stated: “You who are so-called illegal aliens must know that no human being is ‘illegal.’ That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?”

Unfortunately, the law has a mind of its own. As a recent law school graduate and as a volunteer at Casa Juan Diego, I can attest to the horrors of the present legal system and the paradoxical world in which we live. I understand that many United States Citizens have strong anti-immigrant sentiment. This is demonstrated by the common scenario in some states where U.S. civilians are shooting immigrants just to keep them off the land. The irony of course is that the majority of United States Citizens are the descendants of immigrants. But somewhere between who the law considers to be a legal immigrant and who the law considers to be illegal, the United States has lost sight of what our forefathers and foremothers came to the United States for. The Statute of Liberty still stands tall with the following message engraved on her pedestal: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest- tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

They are still tired and they are still poor, but they are no longer welcome in this country. At Casa Juan Diego we have the privilege of living, eating, praying, and working with these immigrants that the law has deemed illegal. We see first hand the ill-effects that recent immigration laws have had on our guests.

In this same vein, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, INC (CLINIC) recently published a report titled “Placing Immigrants at Risk: The Impact of Our Laws and Policies on American Families.” This report details the devastating impact that U.S. immigration laws and policies have on immigrants. This report highlighted how United States immigration laws divides families.

According to this report, an estimated six million people who live in the United States are undocumented. Many of these undocumented immigrants live in “mixed status families” (families with at least one noncitizen parent and one US citizen child). In fact, ten percent of all children in the United States live in mixed status families. Furthermore, 75% of the children in immigrant families are U.S. citizens.

Current U.S. Immigration policies spell disaster for all of these families. In 1996 Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (“the 1996 Immigration Act”). This Act is extremely strict and has caused heartaches for millions of immigrants and their families. The 1996 Immigration Act makes it impossible for poor immigrants to be legally reunited with family members, divides families, and hinders abused women from legalizing their status.

Under U.S. immigration law, it can take years for immigrant families to be legally reunited. Most immigrants enter the United States lawfully in order to reunite with family members. CLINIC reported that in 1998, 72% of all persons who legally immigrated to the United States entered with family-based visas. Unfortunately, many immigrant families are separated for long periods of time due to the annual numerical limitations on visas by categories of family “preference” (relationship) and by country of nationality. The only people who are exempt from these quotas are “immediate relatives” of U.S. citizens. (This includes the spouses and minor unmarried children of U.S. citizens, and the parents of U.S. citizens who are 21 years of age or older.)

All other relative immigrants must meet one of the following four “preference” categories in order to legally immigrate to the United States: (1) unmarried, adult children of U.S. citizens; (2) spouses and unmarried children of lawful permanent residents; (3) married adult children of U.S. citizens; and (4) brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens. These are all subject to the annual quotas by preference category and by country. The waiting period varies greatly depending on which country a person comes from.. Countries with large number of immigrants have a much longer waiting period. For example, it could take a few years longer for an person from Mexico who is in the first preference category to immigrate than it would a person from most other countries. CLINIC states that it takes about six years for a Mexican spouse or minor child of a permanent resident to apply for permanent residence compared to four and a half years for most countries in the world. A Mexican adult son or daughter must wait eight and a half years compared to seven years for most other countries.

Thus, families are separated for an extremely long time while their papers are slowly being processed. CLINIC stated that as of January 1997 an estimated 3,535,400 persons languished in backlogs. To further complicate things, minor children of legal permanent residents have a faster preference category than children over the age of 21. Many children “age out” during the long waiting period and then are pushed over to the even longer waiting period of children over 21 years of age. CLINIC illustrated that a minor child of a permanent resident from Mexico must wait nearly six years to apply for permanent residence, but if she turns 21 during this period she may have to wait an additional three years.

Many families are desperate to be together, and thus relatives enter “illegally” rather than waiting for years to be reunited. These “undocumented” immigrants are vulnerable to exploitation. Without the proper papers, they cannot work. Therefore, they make small wages in any job that will take them. If they are not paid, they have little recourse because they live in fear of being deported. Thus, many families exist in a world of poverty and fear.

For those who can withstand the backlogs, the 1996 Immigration Act further complicated family reunification. The Act requires that anyone petitioning for an immigrating relative must make 125 percent of the federal poverty level and agree to maintain the immigrating relative at that level. This is an impossibility for many poor immigrant families. CLINIC reports that according to a study by the Urban Institute, 41 percent of all U.S. households with foreign-born heads would be unable to attain that level. The 1996 Immigration Act does allow a petitioner to satisfy the income requirement with the help of a joint sponsor. However, very few poor immigrants know people who are able or willing to take on this great financial responsibility. Thus, many families are left with the choiceless choice of being forever separated or immigrating illegally.

As an advocate for immigrants, I find this policy shocking and unfair. Due to current laws, many immigrants have no chance of ever being in the United States legally. It crushes me when I hear stories about immigrants who could be here legally, if only the monetary requirements did not apply. The irony, as CLINIC so well points out, is that there is really no need for a petitioner to prove that he makes 125 percent of the poverty level. The reasoning behind the policy is so that no new immigrant will use up any “federal means-tested public benefit.” However, the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (“Welfare Reform”) prevents new immigrants from using any means-tested public benefits for at least five years. Thus, the 1996 Immigration Act destroys family unity without any sound basis.

Another horrifying implication of the 1996 Immigration Act are the bars on legal admission. Under the 1996 Act, any immigrant who is “unlawfully present” in the United States for more than 180 days is barred from legally reentering the United States for three years; and anyone “unlawfully present” for a year or more is barred from legal reentry for ten years. This law has divided a large number of immigrant families. Until 1997, there was a special provision where immigrants who entered illegally were able to pay a penalty and thus receive permanent residence without leaving the United States. Now, all immigrants who are seeking permanent residence must do so through the U.S. Consulate in their home country. Thus, if a legal permanent resident is married to an undocumented female and resident wishes to petition for his wife, the wife must go back to her home country for the interview and paperwork. However, the minute she leaves the United States, the bars begin. So, if she was in the United States for a year or more, she cannot legally reenter for ten years. This is particularly devastating when U.S. citizen children are involved. (Some waivers are available, but the waivers are discretionary and strict.)

Casa Juan Diego has seen many situations where families are separated due to immigration laws. We had a beautiful young woman stay with us because her husband languished in federal prison. The “crime” he committed was working in the United States after having previously been deported. He worked to provide for his pregnant wife and young daughter. Unfortunately he was arrested before his second child was born. The woman was left alone to take care of the two children.

Another negative facet of the 1996 Immigration Act is its effect on abused women. Under the 1994 Violence Against Woman Act (VAWA) an abused woman was entitled to a “self-petition” or a cancellation of removal. Usually, a relative must petition for an immigrant. However, VAWA recognized that many battering spouses who were U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents and married to undocumented women, would use their status in the cycle of abuse. The citizen or resident husband held all the power in his hands to whether or not the wife’s status could be legalized. Many abused women stayed with their husbands in order to obtain permanent resident. With VAWA, the abused spouse may “self-petition” for a visa. And in the event that the abused spouse is being removed from the country, she could request “cancellation” as a defense. To qualify for either of these, the abused spouse has to show that she is battered or suffers extreme cruelty by a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse or parent, that she is of good moral character, and that she or her child will suffer extreme hardship if removed from the United States. For cancellation, she also has to prove three years of continuous presence in the United States.

VAWA has helped many women, but the 1996 Immigration Act destroyed much of VAWA’s power. CLINIC points out that the three and ten year bars for removal apply to abused women. Thus, an abused woman who has unlawfully been in the United States for more than a year will be subject to a ten year bar for reentry. Some waivers apply to abused women, but they are very narrow. Therefore, many abused women who wish to be lawful permanent residents in the United States may have to leave the United States for ten years!

Furthermore, many victims of domestic violence are unable to legalize their status because their spouse is deported. We had a woman at Casa Juan Diego who came to us badly battered. Her family and friends are all in the United States. She was married to an abusive legal permanent resident. However, her spouse was deported for battery and thus lost his status as a legal permanent resident. Thus, this woman was not able to petition under VAWA because she did not meet the necessary requirement of having a legal permanent resident spouse. She must continue living under the status of “illegal alien.” She herself lives in constant fear of deportation.

The stories go on and on. The fact is that U.S. immigration laws and policies are destroying our families and our futures. For all those lawmakers who see our guests as “illegal aliens,” I pray that one day they have the opportunity to sit down with a so-called “illegal alien.” Maybe then they will see the human face which is destroyed by their laws.

Houston Catholic Worker, vol. XX, No. 6, November 2000.