How Long is Too Long?
by Heather Ruark
So how long should a United States citizen have to wait for their foreign-born spouse to have legal immigration status in the States? Most folks might say, “Oh, a couple months.” Or “Well, it’s the government, so a few months or up to a year.” Or “These things take a while, be patient! Surely within a year or two at the very most!”
From the moment my rural Virginian self and Mexican husband, Horacio, left the U.S. and restarted our lives in Mexico, as an immigration attorney indicated we would need to do in order to legalize his status, it took exactly 12 years, 10 months, and 21 days. In addition we incurred thousands of dollars of immigration fees, lawyer fees, travel expenses, and an immeasurable emotional toll on our, and our children's, mental health.
But let’s rewind. Yes, I dated and married an undocumented immigrant. He had once had a tourist visa, but it was no longer valid by the time we fell in love. And yes, he had an unauthorized entry. He also worked hard driving all over Atlanta painting houses, playing with his U.S. citizen nieces and nephews, taking intensive English classes for four hours every night, and singing in the church choir on weekends. In other words, the kinds of things other everyday Americans do who are dedicated to their families.
We were married in Atlanta in 2005 and, after calculating finances, we decided that it would be better to get the clock ticking on the 10 years he was required by immigration law to spend outside of the U.S. before he had a chance of legal re-entry. So we spent our first year as newlyweds working overtime and saving money to pay off our car debt and my college student loan. It’s an odd feeling having an undocumented immigrant pay for your college and car loans. Aren’t they the ones certain politicians blame for putting a strain on services? Horacio was very firm that we must pay off all existing debt in the United States, being much more aware than I of how incredibly difficult it would be to pay off any debt while earning in Mexican pesos. I am so thankful now that he insisted on this as it would have been impossible while working in Mexico, where salaries are a quarter to a third of what I could earn in the U.S.
On October 11, 2006, we crossed into Mexico and began the journey that has tested the strength of our union. I remember driving across the bridge from Brownsville, Texas, into Matamoros, life suddenly switching to slow motion and thinking everything about us changes now. It was a rather dramatic feeling, knowing that I could return, but that Horacio could not legally set foot in my country for more than a decade, if ever again. The immigration lawyer made it clear that it was not just a matter of spending 10 years outside the USA, we would also have to prove that we needed to move back.
As the months turned into years, and years into more than a decade in Mexico, I would often think of how much the United States as a society was missing out on some of the best people. Horacio is bilingual and a teacher, committed to his students' lives. He is an upstanding citizen who quietly uses his Catholic faith and personal value system to be a just, humane, responsible, and kind person. I wish there were more “Horacios” in the U. S., in Mexico, and in the world, and it was so hard to understand why the immigration system did not want that kind of person, even one married to a U.S. citizen, to be a part of this country.
CHILDREN AND CHANCES
During more than a dozen years in Mexico I did get to know my husband’s family well. We were able to celebrate his nieces’ and nephews’ birthdays and baptisms, accompany his parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, and learn more about the culture and customs of his home country. However, for every birthday celebrated in Mexico, one was missed in the States. For every Mexican wedding there was a wedding I was unable to attend in the States. I couldn’t fly up to be with my sister when my niece spent her first week of life in the hospital. I missed one of my aunt’s funerals. Even when we baptized our first son, none of my family was able to attend and our son’s godparents chose to risk their health and fly down from Atlanta during the H1N1 flu outbreak in order to be with us.
My husband’s lack of legal status became even more painful for us as parents. When asked, our four-year-old would explain that, “Daddy doesn’t have a United States passport or a special card or paper that will let him into the United States.” He used to say he was going to make his daddy a special paper so that he can travel with us. If only it had been that simple. Every summer I had to choose to either take our sons to visit my parents, siblings, and grandmother, or celebrate my husband’s birthday. My sons had to celebrate their dad’s birthdays on Skype. Every Christmas we had to decide whether to spend it with Horacio and his family or with my family in the States without my husband, and every December it’s a struggle to make that decision. With two kids the decision now depends upon finances and, more often than not, we stay in Mexico.
During difficult days in Mexico, I daydreamed about moving back north alone with our two kids and working for a year or so. We actually tried it in 2016 with high hopes of a quick approval for the immigration waiver for which he qualified. I took a teaching job and moved to Pennsylvania with our then four- and seven-year-old sons. It became a most challenging 10 months where we learned that family separation was not the solution to our immigration woes. Our youngest would try to understand why we couldn’t just go see his father and would attempt to touch Horacio on the screen when we video-chatted. Our oldest got angry about the separation and would often refuse to talk to his father. Lonely and discouraged the three of us moved back to Mexico.
I have struggled a lot with anger of my own over the past dozen years. Horacio and I often mentioned to each other that, as a couple, these harsh immigration laws felt more like a punishment to me as a U.S. citizen, rather than to him as an immigrant. After all, he was in his home country, close to family, friends, and familiarity. But we also understood the necessity of complying with existing immigration laws, no matter how demanding or incompassionate.
THE LONG-AWAITED DAY
Horatio’s original waiver was finally approved and he was given a visa appointment on April 24, 2018, at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez. While I stayed home to work and keep the kids in school, Horacio flew north alone, but with great optimism. He left his hotel room the morning of the appointment with documents in hand, confident that we had met the explicit requirements given to him in his consular interview nine years before. When he called me at work at 11:16 am, while I was in the teachers’ lounge at school, I was shocked when he tearfully told me his visa had been denied. Horacio apologized, saying he was “so sorry for doing this to you and the boys.” He went on to explain that he was born and raised in Mexico and would be okay there, but he knew how difficult it had been for me in particular over the past decade. We had remained resolute for many years with our sights set on this specific moment and now we felt as if all was lost and our efforts meant nothing. The only saving grace was that the consulate’s decision wasn’t a complete denial: He was given an application for another waiver, but that meant further emotional and financial hardship. And another unknown amount of waiting.
We both kept teaching in Mexico and often my days at the elementary school where I taught sent me into reflections on crime and punishment. My job as an educator includes enforcing the school’s rules for my students and applying the consequences when those rules are broken. When Horacio and I had our first consultation with an immigration lawyer in 2005 I resolved to accept the ten-year ban Horacio incurred because, as a teacher, I understood that there are consequences for breaking the rules. I was willing to “pay the price” for Horacio’s immigration violations and agreed to the importance of moving to Mexico in order to comply with the law. I feel I “won the lottery” when I married my husband and, while I believe he is well-worthy of our shared struggle to gain his U.S. citizenship, it was heartbreaking to see him denied a visa even after we did everything the U.S. government required.
OUR LAST CHANCE
Some immigration stories have happy endings. We spent more time gathering letters and documents, while paying thousands of dollars more in immigration and lawyer fees, and Horacio applied for the second waiver which was eventually approved. He got his third visa appointment for this past July 1st. After the crushing disappointment of the first two attempts we decided to make it a family support event and accompany Horacio to Ciudad Juarez. We understood only too well that this was probably our last chance at legal status in the United States.
To his family’s joyful surprise Horacio walked into our hotel room in Ciudad Juarez, across from the U.S. Consulate, proudly waving his new visa. Tears of gratitude flowed as he stumbled into the room with hugs all around and our boys jumping on the bed. After more than a dozen years of paperwork, immigration and lawyer fees, and favors and moral support from friends and family, he finally had his visa. But every hard-won victory is a reminder of those who still wait. How do you celebrate without guilt when your BFF is still waiting on her husband’s visa appointment?
Some might say, “Hey, the system worked! What are you complaining about? Your husband got his visa!” In response, I say, “Make the punishment fit the crime.” We literally left the country to get in the notorious line. Should there be a penalty for illegal immigration? Of course. But the current penalties are draconian and purposefully cruel. The process of complying with often-changing administrative requirements is onerous and endless, and the decision-making by bureaucrats ambiguous and inconsistent. Thorough immigration reform is long overdue, not only for those who simply want the chance to prove they are worthy of becoming citizens of a country they admire, but for all U.S. citizens in a society missing out on being able to welcome the world’s best and brightest to a new home. The United States was built on immigration. Curtailing virtually all immigration in the cause of discrimination and xenophobia hurts all of us.
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