President Obama: Before You Act on Immigration

Note: If you want to show your support, please leave your name, state, and # of your congressional voting district in the comments. 

Querétaro, Mexico | August 7, 2014

Dear President Obama,

I’m aware that you are contemplating taking action on immigration and that White House staff is hard at work researching your options. Before anything happens, I wanted to make sure you heard my story, because I’m one of millions of Americans who stand to be affected by any decision you take—but our story is not often heard.

It’s been another hard year for us to be away from the United States. Not any harder than the last eight years that I have been away from my home country. But hard for different reasons.

When my father in New York was ill last December, I was unable to go visit and help him.

In California, where I lived and worked for seven years as a science teacher, two good friends had baby sons. I have not been able to meet them. One of my former students got married but I could only attend the wedding ceremony virtually.

From my home in Central Mexico, I watched one friend after another travel freely between the United States, Canada and Mexico, accompanied by their family members. I found out that a long-time dream I’ve had, to be a research associate of my alma mater, Cornell University, would not be possible. Even though the director of a lab was interested in collaborating, the University does not allow off-campus appointments.

Every time I experience these disappointments, I handle them the way I have in these past eight years of exile in Mexico—I focus on the other positive things happening in my life.

Exile? Yes, I have been living in exile in Mexico since 2006. I don’t like the sound of it, and I can’t say my plight is equal to that of other famous exilees, such as the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, or Malala Yousefi. But the reasons are ultimately the same—because of a political reality in my home country, I am forced to live away from my birthplace, and have been obligated to call another country home.

Sadly, I am not alone. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Americans are either forced abroad, torn apart from their family members, or forced underground in their own country, for the same reason that I am in Mexico: our broken immigration system. Thousands of us live abroad in isolation, subject to abject poverty and violence. Thousands of Americans’ family members—spouses and parents alike, are waiting indefinitely in their home countries to be reunited with their families. Thousands of Americans are living in the shadows in the U.S., as I once did with my husband, from 2001 to 2006.

What could possibly be causing this epidemic of Americans in exile? Why have I been unable to return to the U.S. all these years? The answer lies deep within the technicalities in current immigration law, statutes that were introduced with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1996. This law led to the plight I am in—that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Americans are in—today.

I’ve probably talked with thousands of people about this issue. The vast majority of Americans I speak with are truly confounded by this state of affairs. They ask me, “But why can’t your husband immigrate legally? You’re married!?”  So I coauthored the book Amor and Exile: True Stories of Love Across America’s Borders (Cordillera West 2013) with journalist Nathaniel Hoffman, to try and answer that question. But even as we explored many different reasons behind the plights of families like mine, I am still no closer to accepting the status quo. I actually sent you a copy of the book last summer. After publishing, we raised enough money to deliver over 600 copies of our book to legislators and officials on Capitol Hill. And we’ve continued to share our stories with thousands of Americans since then. I hope you or someone in your staff had an opportunity to read it.

Because my husband was subject to a 9c immigration bar before we began dating in 2001, even when we were finally married in 2004, I was unable to confer legal status on him. He had come to the U.S. to work without papers, and had been stopped and sent back. Prior to the 1996 law, my husband would not have received a 10-year immigration “ban” for that. But in the true spirit of the marriage vow for better or for worse, I chose to stay with my partner, and that meant I took on the burden of his immigration status, even when we were told by lawyers that the only way we could obtain legal status for him was to leave the country for 10 years, in the hopes of being able to someday apply for a pardon and then maybe a visa.

This December is our tenth wedding anniversary.  We have been in Mexico together for eight years. My husband has not seen my only living grandmother since then. He has not seen my only sister-in-law since we left California in 2006. I have not had income above the U.S. poverty level since then. I am afraid that even though we may make it ten years in Mexico, we will not be able to afford the legal process to try and return to the U.S. someday.

So much furious debate on immigration has yielded so few actual solutions in our Congress since I married my husband. Amor and Exile gives a thorough account of efforts like these and the history leading up to them, as well as other ideas for future relief. Some bills were more openly anti-immigrant than others. But finally, in 2013, we had hope with the comprehensive immigration bills, SB 744 and HR 15, which would grant relief to millions of hard-working undocumented immigrants. The American Families United Act, HR 3431 (now with several bipartisan co-sponsors), would help families like mine. Both bills would provide an opportunity for my husband to apply for a waiver immediately rather than continuing to wait.

But the frequent rise and fall of these bids leaves our families hanging on for dear life on this roller coaster ride on which our very futures depend. We hope and pray for legislative relief every day. Now, the long-term failure of Congress to act may finally compel you, Mr. President, to do something of your own accord. You tried for many years to prove you were “tough on immigration,” and you have received criticism for record-high deportation levels.

President Barack Obama Delivering 2013 Inaugural Address Photo: White House/Lawrence Jackson
President Barack Obama Delivering 2013 Inaugural Address Photo: White House/Lawrence Jackson

I knew you were doing this to try and provide the right conditions for Congress to move a comprehensive reform bill forward. But in the end, all that hard bipartisan work to pass a bill has been taken hostage by the radical Right. So I applaud you, Mr. President, for wanting to do something about the immigration impasse. It’s the right thing to do, especially in a nation of immigrants.

But here’s my fear: when that executive action is revealed, the one you have been deliberating for quite some time now, it will leave families like mine—like hundreds of thousands of others—out in the cold. I’m also afraid that after executive action goes into effect, backlash in Congress could make it even harder to pass bills that would provide relief to families like mine. If we can’t get relief from either executive action or these bills, our hard-working American families, who exemplify cherished American family values so much that we’re willing to risk life and liberty for our kin, will be left to languish in limbo, and left out of the opportunity to “get right” with the laws and live under one roof together today, in America, without fear.

I support the multitude of rationales to include millions of de facto Americans who contribute to our society on a daily basis with humane executive action. My family must be included in this reform as well. My spouse should be able to seek citizenship alongside me, as our daughter has, with all the attendant privileges citizenship confers, without the cruel and unusual punishment of a ten-year waiting period abroad with no guaranteed outcome. I should have the autonomy to decide where I will live with my family. As an American citizen, I should not have to choose between my husband and living in the U.S. My great-grandparents did not have to make that choice. Nor should hundreds of thousands of my counterparts have to choose between their family and their country.

President Obama, restore my faith that you kindled in your inaugural address last year, when you said, “Our journey is not complete, until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”  Be as creative as possible and use the full extent of your powers to take the lead in finding a way to include my my family—my husband—hundreds of thousands of our American familiesin that vision, and in any executive action you take on immigration, so we do not have to make the decision between family and country anymore.


Nicole R. Salgado

California Voting District 18

and the Undersigned

Amber Henderson, Georgia, District 4
Rebecca Amirah Barragan, Texas, District 15
Jane McGroarty Sampaio, Massachusets, District 9
Meggan Macchado, Massachusets, District 9
Charlcie Cubas, Wisconsin, District 7
Krystal Loverin, Oregon, District 2
Linda Cedillos, Virginia, District 4
Shayna Elizabeth Diaz, California, District 4
Emily Bonderer Cruz, Texas, District 16
Rob Woodall, Georgia, District 7
Amy Koenig Da Silva, Massachusets, District 9
Shannon Ledezma, Texas, District 23
Israel Sanchez, California, District 53
Susan A. Davis, California, District 53
Elizabeth Sommo, Texas, District 15
Hannah Hoover, Texas, District 14
Kimberly Griffith, North Carolina, District 15
Angela Hernandez, Minnesota, District 4
Kamie Timms, North Carolina, District 10
Elizabeth Huerta, Texas, District 16
Laurie Hernandez, South Carolina, District 1
Madina Salaty, Kansas, District 2
Sylvia Malagon, North Carolina, District 4
Amelia da Silva, New York, District 23
Lucindia Dawn Torres, Oklahoma, District 1
Amanda Cameron, Colorado, District 1
Valeriano Serradilha, Georgia, District 6
Crystal Costella Mendez, Pennsylvania, District 8
Peggy Soto, Indiana, District 9
Sany Figueiredo, Georgia, District 7
Laura Lopez, Wisconsin, District 8
Maria Ferreira, Pennsylvania, District 13
Edgar Falcon, Texas, District 16
Allyson Batista, Pennsylvania, District 1
Kim Repp, Virginia, District 3
Raquel Warsing, Pennsylvania, District 3
Lana Janelle Heath Martinez, Virginia, District 7
Curt Clawson, Florida, District 19
Dawn Naveja, Illinois, District 5
Pamela Deligiannis Monroy, Virginia, District 7
Shirah Cahill, New York, District 22
Diana Cahill, New York, District 25
Moshe Cahill, New York, District 25
Ilana Stevenson, New York, District 25
Sonia Estrada, Oregon, District 5
Heather Ruark, Georgia, District 5
Joanna Eros, Pennsylvania, District 16
William Ruark, Virginia, District 7
Dana Cawthorn Bautista, Florida, District 19

Auspicious Coincidences and the Widening Circle

Sharing my story and my opinions about immigration and reform has always created a haphazard mix of cynicism and optimism. Cynicism due to the lack of political will in Washington for so many years to create humane immigration policies. Optimism because no matter how many people I talk to, I always meet people who are outraged to hear our story and what happened to us as a result of draconian immigration laws.

My experience during our two most recent events in Mexico — in Patzcuaro, Michoacan and in Guanajuato, GTO — were no exception. Given the fact that Amor and Exile was a moonlighting project for both of us authors, we have limited amount of time to devote to its promotion, beyond social media. And being an individual affected by the “broken immigration system,” I take the lack of forward progress in these affairs particularly personally. So as invitations started to come during 2014 to give talks in different parts of Mexico, I was super delighted to know that this issue is important to others beside my immediate family and allies.

The trip to Patzcuaro was sponsored by the Patzcuaro and neighboring Morelia book clubs, hosted by Victoria Ryan of Hotel Casa Encantada, with Dara Stillman organizing. Although the list of incidental benefits to anyone in exile is short, for me, this trip ranked high on the list — 3 nights in an incredibly gorgeous B & B in the heart of a quaint Mexican mountain town known for its Dia de los Muertos celebrations on Isla Janitzio in Lago Patzcuaro. In addition to the official event on May 9th, Margo and I spent countless hours discussing the issue with dozens of expats who were extremely interested in the issue and our story. Many people expressed a lot of disgust and frustration with U.S. immigration policies for their inflexibility and inhumanity. The event with this crowd was seminal for me in a way because both individually and collectively, they encouraged me to “let loose” a little more in my political opinions on the issue. In the past, when in the public eye, I tend to make a lot of effort to frame things diplomatically, for fear of being considered inflammatory or controversial. But at the Patzcuaro event, since the people in our audience asked me to, I felt free to express my true feelings about a specific issue without worrying about how I said it.

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Nicole and family with Dara Stillman and Victoria Ryan in Patzcuaro, Michoacan.

A few uncanny coincidences also occurred in Patzcuaro. The first was that we were taken to a place that my family and I had stayed in the year before our daughter was born. We had the opportunity to converse at length with the owner, a Mexico City born intellectual who is an artist in his own right. Next, I found out that the Buddhist monk/author who had greatly helped me during my first years in Mexico had stayed across town while writing one of his books. I was invited to visit the retreat center, Casa Werma, and its amazingly beautiful grounds the day before we left. My hosts, Rine and Kai, direct the center and also offer workshops on meditation. After receiving a private session on meditation, I couldn’t help but wonder what forces were at work in the universe to introduce me to my husband 15 years ago, to the works of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche 13 years ago, to relocate to Mexico, struggle with relocation and more deeply understand the meaning of Buddhist wisdom as a direct result of the exile 8 years ago, begin to write of my own journey in exile 3 years ago, and then walk the same grounds where Rinpoche had written about the wisdom of “groundlessness” on Mexican soil this year. Rine called them “auspicious coincidences.” I fancy that something is going on beyond what I’ve directly perceived, and this kind of knowledge fuels my resolve to continue with this path.

In Guanajuato this past weekend and yesterday, although the events were less coincidental than Patzcuaro, they were no less auspicious. It was our first invitation to speak to a law class, and we were pleased to discover that the professor, Beth Caldwell, had found out about our book from the ImmigrationProfBlog last year and assigned parts of our book as reading. Caldwell is an Associate Professor at Southwestern University and is teaching a class in the Summer Law Institute at the University of Guanajuato during June attended by law students from the U.S. and Mexico. Upon meeting this past weekend, I was delighted to find out our families have some things in common, and appreciated how proactive Caldwell, who also has a background in social work, was about exposing her students to real-life stories that potential clients grapple with as a result of U.S. immigration policies.

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Nicole and family with Prof. Caldwell at University of Guanajuato Summer Law Institute, June 16, 2014

During the talk, one of the students asked whether I thought that wider awareness or better access to information would have somehow impacted our life choices in the past. It was a really hard question to answer because it can be analyzed on so many levels — the personal for both Margo and I, the political (in terms of whether greater public awareness could influence policy). Looking back, I think my answer was more cynical than I would have liked. But then many questions later I continued to make optimistic comments, especially regarding the importance of outreach. I explained that the issue is often painful, but that sharing our story was ultimately therapeutic because it ceased to become just our own personal cross to bear. By externalizing the issue, it becomes available for others to take up — or not — and I am eternally appreciative of the compassionate souls out there who righteously recognize this issue as one of universal concern and worth shouldering along with those of us who are directly affected.

Exploring the many sides of this issue reminds me of discourse regarding evolving scientific matters — when something can be spun so many ways, and affects individuals, families and societies in so many ways, there aren’t really any simple answers. Discussion of the many facets of an issue can sometimes slow forward progress toward consensus. But one thing that is clear, and I knew this since before we even started writing the book, is that as long as so many people are in the dark about the very nature of our country’s immigration policies, and with so many people wanting to know the truth about the direction our country is headed in and how to steer it in a more humane and just direction, my moral obligation to speak out on the issue continues. I may not have the resources to bankroll political candidate’s campaigns in order to enact policies that are convenient to me, but I can keep participating in this discussion until I am unable, with whoever wants to join me.

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Stained glass window at University of Guanajuato

Perhaps auspiciously, a message in a stained glass window at the University of Guanajuato states, “La verdad os hará libres.” The truth will set you free. A mantra for us all.