Waiting it out[side]

Everyone is waiting with baited breath for the much-anticipated executive action to be announced by President Obama this evening at 8 pm. Everyone who sees immigration as an important issue, that is. My coauthor Nathaniel Hoffman described how most of immigration is a waiting game in Chapter 3 of Amor and Exile, The Binational Labryinth:

“Immigration to the United States, whether legal or illegal, is a waiting game. You wait to be eligible for a visa and then for your visa to be approved. Sometimes you wait five years or sixteen or twenty-three years for that visa. You wait three days to get deported or you wait a year for the immigration courts to clear their backlog before you get your hearing. You wait for your brother or your father to fill out the paperwork for you, for a letter back from the National Visa Center. You press two for Spanish and wait, on hold. You wait for a pardon. You wait and watch as Congress takes up immigration reform and drops it and takes it up again. You wait up at night for your loved ones to return home from work. You wait for dark to fall, for the floodlights to pass and then you run across the line and wait for transport. You wait for another mule with trunk space.”

Even if I were waiting, I wouldn’t even be able to listen in to the announcement, because I’ll be teaching English (I currently work nights) while it happens.

Part of me it not really waiting at all though. I was, for a few months. I wrote and circulated an open letter to President Obama in August when it became clear the plan for executive action was in the works. I spoke with  Center for Public Integrity reporter Susan Ferriss about my thin hopes for inclusion earlier this week for her piece, “U.S. spouses of ousted immigrants await Obama plan.” However, when recent reports began to point to a probable emphasis on relief for parents of U.S. citizen children, I knew we’d probably be waiting this one out. There will likely also be the perfunctory nod to “highly-skilled” workers. There *might* be a bone thrown in for spouses of U.S. citizens via extended “Parole in Place,” but whether that will happen or not is yet to be seen, and even if it were, it probably would not extend to any of those undocumented spouses of those U.S. citizens who happen to be outside of the country.

No matter what happens, we will have to be clear about what this executive action is and what it’s not. The run-up to this executive action is being billed by some as “fixing the broken immigration system,” but please.  You can’t possibly argue that giving tenuous relief to a small fraction of the individuals who need reform is a fix of a broken system. As immigration lawyer and advocate Prerna Lal puts it, she’s “still concerned about the millions left out by the plan specifics.” So this executive action is a Band-Aid, at best. Of course, human rights advocates like Ellin Jimmerson, Director of The Second Cooler, a documentary about the wide human rights offenses committed by the immigration system, narrated by Martin Sheen, have been saying it all along: if widespread human rights aren’t advanced by immigration reform, in the end, it’s not net progress. Sure, it’s a step, albeit small one. Even Obama knows that. Advocates and legislators alike believe that no matter the reach of this executive action, it’s no substitute for Congressional reform.

So no, this executive announcement probably won’t make a lick of difference for my family, especially because we are currently in Mexico. If we had decided to stay in the U.S. and wait it out under the radar as millions of others have done, there might be a slight chance we’d get relief from this. That remains to be seen, as it’s uncertain whether the action will extend to all individuals with 9(c) inadmissibilities. So yes, if it were that 9(c) cases could get relief from this, then yes, we would be left behind for having left the country to try and “get in line.”

‘Course, I won’t be alone in this, hundreds of thousands, probably millions of us will get left out. But this seems to be a recurring pattern, one that I’m not sure will ever be entirely rectified, even by a bill as large as HR15, for reasons which activists like Jimmerson expand on amply.

Which is why, for the moment, I am boycotting the waiting game. In my final chapters in Amor and Exile, I describe how I’ve toyed with the idea of pulling out of the waiting game entirely, not willing anymore to pin my life hopes on an act of Congress or an executive action such as the one on November 20th, 2014.

Ironically, November 20th is the Anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. I wonder if that was just coincidental? Most everyone down here is working today because we already celebrated the occasion on Monday (they do long weekends early), but instead of going to the downtown parade or to a party, I spent it with the editorial team for Amor y Exilio—the Spanish translation of Amor and Exile that is currently underway.

Even with the question of “did we miss out?” potentially shadowing over me during the aftermath of executive action, I would rather take the bull by the horns when it comes to the possibility of arrepentimiento. Rather than regret or question any of my past decisions to move to Mexico, to make this leap of faith, pasa lo que pasa, I would say no, I have no regrets. I prefer to embrace the fact that my husband was duly safe, at no risk of detention in these last 8 years. I am grateful for the freedom to have built our own home, in a lovely climate, and to have made lovely friends and to be making a life for ourselves.

Sure, it’s nice to think of what the future could hold when and if my husband is permitted to travel and/or reside alongside my daughter and I to my home country. Yes, I will be frustrated if the system once again fails to reward people who are trying to do the right thing. And there will still be that glaring recollection that Congress’s failure to move forward on a real fix is what’s brought us to this point.

But our time has not yet arrived. And so in the meantime, I see no reason to wait—just every reason to keep trying to move forward.

old goodies2
We’ll also try to keep smiling, because if we don’t laugh about this, we’ll cry. Photo of the author and her husband from 2009 in San Mateo, California.

P.S. Today’s featured image was chosen for no other reason than it’s throwback Thursday, and it’s our 10-year wedding anniversary in just under one month.


Amor and Exile Year-In-Review 2013

An Amor and Exile Year-In-Review, 2013 timeline

2013 was a big year for Amor and Exile and for the pro-immigration movement. Brush up on the issues of the past year with this Amor and Exile Year-In-Review for 2013.


Obama administration announces stateside waiver processing, creates relief for some families (Take Two, Southern California Public Radio)


Action for Family Unity collage of photos of families separated or in exile due to immigration law
Action for Family Unity collage of photos of families separated or in exile due to immigration law





  • “Send Amor and Exile to Washington” campaign raises over $12,000 and delivers a copy to every member of Congress, the nine Supreme Court justices, President and First Lady Obama and Vice-President Biden and other D.C. officials
  • A&E featured on the News and Politics section of BlogHer (BlogHer.com)
  • Nicole and Nathaniel launch A&E on the East Coast with the first public readings at AILA D.C. headquarters and Ukazoo Books in Baltimore, MD
  • Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) calls for relief for exiled/separated families with colleague letter supporting Amor and Exile (amorandexile.com)
  • Nathaniel launches A&E in Boise at Hyde Park Books, with Nicole skyping in from Querétaro (facebook.com)
  • SB 744 passed in the Senate (New York Times)
  • A&E discussed in “All About Family” (Baltimore Jewish Times)
  • Nathaniel’s work as Idaho journalist and A&E highlighted (Idaho Press-Tribune)
June collage
Clockwise from bottom L: Constituent letters to Congressional reps; Nicole and Nate meet with Rep. Luis Gutierrez; Nicole and Nate after hand-delivering over 100 copies of A&E; Nicole on Capitol Hill; Nicole at Ukazoo reading in Baltimore; Nicole, cover designer Gilad Foss and Nate in Baltimore; Nate and Margi Hoffman mailing books to D.C. officials; and the audience at the A&E launch at Hyde Park Books in Boise, ID.


  • Nicole launches A&E in Mexico with Nathaniel skyping in, starting in Querétaro at the Casa del Atrio (amorandexile.com)
  • A&E and Nicole’s story covered in Boulder, Colorado (Boulder Weekly)
  • Nathaniel hosts reading at the American Friends Service Committee in Denver with a call-in by Nicole
Top: Nicole at La Casa del Atrio reading, Querétaro, México; Nicole and friends of A&E at the Querétaro reading
Top: Nicole at La Casa del Atrio reading, Querétaro, México. Bottom: Nicole and friends of A&E at the Querétaro reading


  • Reading in San Miguel de Allende, home of J.W. Lown, profiled in A&E
  • Edgar Falcon marries on the border in highly publicized wedding on the El Paso/Mexico border (Texas Tribune)
August collage
Clockwise from top: San Miguel de Allende reading, Nicole with supporter at SMA reading, U.S. citizen Edgar Falcon marries Mexican citizen Maricruz Valtierra at U.S./Mexico border in August.



  • HR 15, a comprehensive immigration reform bill largely based on SB 744, is introduced in the House of Representatives (ImmigrationImpact.com)
  • Nathaniel shares A&E at the International Institute of the Bay Area on October 24th
  • A&E and Nicole and Margo’s story featured on PRI The World (PRI The World)
  • Rift surfacing between some immigration reform activist groups (prernalal.com)
  • House Reps Pearce (R-NM) and O’Rourke (D-TX) sponsor the American Families United Act (AFU website)
Amor and Exile in October 2013
Nathaniel signs copies of Amor and Exile at reading at the International Institute of the Bay Area in October.


  • Nicole and Margo’s story featured alongside series of profiles of SF Bay Area immigration activists (SF Bay Guardian)
  • Town-hall discussion of A&E and immigration issues at Rediscovered Books in Boise and Baltimore event co-hosted by Chizuk Amuno and Beth-El congregations (amorandexile.com)
  • Illegal Immigration and Marriage,” discussion of A&E with Nathaniel and Nicole on “Midday with Dan Rodricks” (WYPR.org)
  • Pre-Thanksgiving Reading of A&E in (Nicole’s hometown of Syracuse, NY (Post-Standard | Syracuse.com)
Amor and Exile in November 2013
Clockwise from upper L: Nate on the air with Nicole on the Midday with Dan Rodricks show; Nicole skyping in from Mexico with Deyanira and Ben at Rediscovered Books reading; the audience at the RD Books reading in Boise; the audience at the reading at the Jefferson Clinton Hotel in Syracuse, NY; Nicole and her grandmother, Thelma Kinney, at the Syracuse reading, the day before Thanksgiving.


  • Immigration reform officially “dead” for 2013 (Hispanic News Network)
  • Fight for comprehensive immigration reform shaping up for 2014 (Grand Island Independent)
  • A&E available on Kindle in the Amazon Prime Lending Library
  • A&E has sold over 1,000 copies and hosted 14 public readings in the U.S. and Mexico in its first six months.
  • Giveaway days planned in January to coincide with the start of the Congressional session, to help elevate the debate on immigration reform—stay tuned!

House Reps: Who’s Responsible for Immigration Reform?

In a transcript of an appearance on Univision’s “Al Punto con Jorge Ramos,” House Representative Steve King claimed that, “it isn’t [his] responsibility to solve that problem,” in reference to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. This is the same Rep. King (R-IA) who has compared undocumented immigrants to dogs and asserted that he’s picked up immigrants with calves the size of cantaloupes, a remark that’s earning him the distancing of fellow House Republicans John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Raul Labrador.

But on the subject of responsibility, it raises a good point as to whose role it is to deal with the issue of immigration reform. King asserts that the full responsibility for their illegal status lies with the immigrant him or herself, because they step into the situation willingly. One could assume that the next logical assumption is that undocumented immigrants want to alleviate themselves of that responsibility, i.e. through amnesty. However, I’d be hard pressed to think of an undocumented immigrant that I know who is asking someone else to take responsibility for them. Far from it, actually, especially given how hard workers most of the undocumented immigrants I have ever known are. They are usually the ones who are taking responsibility for many others—their American citizen children, their American citizen spouses, their family and extended family members back home. Without even wanting to, millions of undocumented immigrants shoulder economic responsibility for American citizens. They pay taxes into the IRS coffers and into a Social Security system that they will never see a dime from—to the tune of $11.2 billion dollars in 2010—which, when compared to giant American corporations who pay little to nothing, makes you wonder, why the misdirected vilification?

Beyond those who have citizen or permanent resident spouses or children, it’d be difficult to name an undocumented immigrant who hasn’t contributed in some responsible way to American society by contributing to the economy, producing crops, building homes, caring for young children, preparing food, working in virtually all aspects of American industry, in some way adding their daily bread to the fabric of American society, whether seen or unseen. Denying their contributions does not make them or their contributions disappear.

The undocumented immigrant whose level of responsibility I knew best was the one who I lived with in the U.S. until 2006—my husband. We moved to his home country of Mexico in 2006 because, despite being legally married and seeking avenues for legalization for several years, I could not assume the legal responsibility of adjusting his status, although we were legally married.  Ironically, in the end, it was my husband the undocumented immigrant, who was the one who took primary financial responsibility for our family, in that he was making better income despite our disparate educational backgrounds, and allowed me to pay off my car loan, as well as my college loan, five years early.

But the panorama never looked better than bleak for obtaining legal status for my husband, despite several trips to lawyers. In 2006, I was working as a science teacher and finishing up my Masters. That same year, House Rep. James Sensenbrenner proposed laws that would have made it a felony for me to even drive in the same vehicle as my husband. One state after another passed laws that treated undocumented immigrants more and more harshly. I doubted the political will of Congress to finally live up to its country’s immigrant legacy and make good on its debt to the millions of individuals who have contributed for decades to American society, regardless of the piece of paper they did not hold.

Almost a decade after we’d married in California, I ended up in Mexico with my husband, we had a daughter, and I’d almost given up hope that I’d ever get back to the United States with him. I’d made my peace that maybe we might never go back because the political climate in Washington is as fickle as the wind that blows. But then that spark of political will stirred this past January, as we were finishing the manuscript of Amor and Exile. Those who’d been hopeless for so long suddenly were taken with optimism once again. We organized, we rallied, we lobbied, our messages were well received.

Many people didn’t want to engage in the rollercoaster ride of hope, fear, optimism, and pessimism. They’d been let down too many times before. They didn’t want to be let down again. But many felt it was different this time, that we were reaching a critical mass of support for immigration reform, and that we really had a chance at progress. Now many of us are questioning again.

It’s partially because there are some politicians who are bound and determined to make sure our hopes are ignored, that our demands go unanswered, that societal justice continues to go unserved. Another part is that we who are living this struggle on a daily basis are tired. We have lives, we can not go on fighting indefinitely. We also wonder when our fellow citizens will care enough to go to bat for us with their elected officials and help drive the support for this effort home—essentially, to bring our families home.

I may have found the way to survive, I’ve got my Plan B’s, and I might still thrive in the long run. But I have counterparts whose lifelines are much thinner. So much work has been put in by thousands of activists, lobbyists and legislators toward immigration reform.

So whereas some legislators may not see 11 million undocumented people’s fate as their responsibility, let me take a stab at a response to King’s assertion. They don’t want to be your responsibility, Rep. King. They want to be officially recognized for the responsibilities they’ve already taken on and met in a way that often exceeds the level of responsibility that many Americans will ever know.

And to go a step further, I’d assert that yes, it is the role of legislators to deal with immigration law—which is, in fact, the reason why undocumented immigrants have the illegal status that they do. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) changed the rules of the game in a drastic way in 1996, criminalizing undocumented immigration to an unprecedented extent that has had far-reaching effects not just on the lives of 11 million undocumented immigrants, but also in the fates of hundreds of thousands of their U.S. citizen family members, and members of their communities. An extent that some might say, changed the face of immigration in a country founded by immigrants.

Thankfully, many legislators still see it as their role to assume responsibility for fixing a broken immigration system that is currently causing more harm than it should. Even Speaker of the House John Boehner, who appeared wholly unsupportive of SB 744 just last month, has conceded the “need to educate members about the hundreds of issues involved in fixing our legal immigration system and the problem of those who are here in an undocumented fashion.”

I have an important reminder for House representatives. Even if you don’t see undocumented immigrants’ fate as your responsibility, surely you would agree it is your responsibility to answer to American citizen constituents. And in the very least, you should read your mail. So I very respectfully ask you to please read the piece of mail that arrived in your Washington offices last month. That was when you received a copy of my book Amor and Exile, which I coauthored with journalist Nathaniel Hoffman. It describes the stories of more than 12 different Americans like myself who have had their families split up or who’ve had to move abroad because of the fall out from laws like IIRIRA—which, being a set of laws passed by Congress, are indeed the purview of Congress. Kill a few responsibilities with one stone: read Amor and Exile.

d.c. tripMAIL
Constituent letters from supporters who sent Amor and Exile to Washington, D.C.

Welcome: Action for Family Unity

Action for Family Unity collage of photos of families separated or in exile due to immigration law

Our stories just keep coming out, and out, and out. The farther we come out, the more scary it feels, but it also feels so wonderful to read and hear the words of our supporters as they join the call to legislators to help bring us home.

These past two weeks have been really amazing. Just last month, I was thinking it would be hard to get families like ours (in exile or facing exile due to immigration laws) organized into a cohesive political force to be dealt with. But then I put out a call asking if anyone knew of specific organizations dedicated to lobbying for our issues. There aren’t many—our presence on the media map is very sparse, despite our large numbers. There are a wide variety of organizations doing great advocacy work and coming up with exciting solutions, too many to list here. But if you’re interested, Prerna Lal, one of my favorite immigration bloggers, suggested a list of sites to start with here.

One thing happened after another. A fellow exile blogger, Raquel Magaña, got back to me with a few ideas of people to be in touch with. The first was Ellin Jimmerson, director and producer of The Second Cooler, a moving documentary that focuses on how immigration is a human rights and workers’ rights issue (Thank you Ellin).

Next thing I knew, I was messaging like crazy with other women in exile—in the U.S., South America, Mexico, South Korea. This was nothing new for many of them—they’ve been in touch with each other for a while—a long time for some, and attracting press to put our issues on the map. But my efforts on activism have been isolated to advocacy back in 2006 (the SF marches) and getting my memoir out over the last 2 years, with the occasional petition signature, and I hadn’t been a part of any online forum before.


But I also got the sense that the call for action was burning really bright for some women. We’re supportive of the broad movements, we’re supportive of the more specific ones, like those of the DREAMers. But we’re also afraid of getting left out of upcoming reform (Some might say we’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell, but we’re going to try anyways). So suddenly, we formed a group. It has a name and plans for action and collaboration and everything. It all happened so fast. We submitted our pictures and a beautiful mosaic image of them was made. We shared our stories, some intensely personal and not for public eyes. We began building trust in the best way possible without having met our colleagues before, while making up your own rules. We did a petition.

Raquel summed it up well with this comment:

“You will find that every one of these women has a story to be told… and those stories will be told, with heart, with passion, and with the truth of how their individual rights have been overlooked. These ladies will conquer the truth in this history made in their pens and that should promote a government official to execute some relief NOW. When threatened to be overlooked, there is organization. Family unity…there are too many to ignore.”

I am totally floored by how we’re managing to collectively surf this wave of energy we all have, to DO SOMETHING on behalf of our families and others like ours. I have no idea where all this will lead. This is purely voluntary, we all have day jobs, and no financial base to grow from. But I do know that I am feeling a hell of a lot more inspired than I was a month ago, when I wasn’t sure of what I could do beyond writing my story.

I believe in the power of the critical mass. And I wouldn’t be ashamed if we didn’t “make it” this time. As I’ve said before, I’m in this for the long haul.

Most importantly, we’re coming together. For action. Which brings me back to the petition. I wrote it with the help of others and I think it’s very powerful. It sums up our goals pretty well. All the comments I’ve read by my friends, family members, people I don’t even know, bring tears of joy to my eyes. And we hope it will continue to get signed like crazy. Help our group out with that, would you? And stay posted, as this probably won’t be the last thing you’ll hear about it.

Sign the petition here: https://www.change.org/petitions/president-obama-and-congress-bring-home-american-families-in-exile#

One Tomorrow

People have been asking me if I saw Obama’s inaugural speech. I probably should, just to be “informed.” My not having seen it has less to do with me being a cynic than my not wanting to be let down again. Ever since his victory speech in 2008, I’ve been riding a hot air balloon with a slow leak.

Today, idealistic feet planted fully on the ground, even with rumors of impending immigration reform, I prefer not to entertain illusions of quick fixes to my family’s problem of a 10-year exile in Central Mexico. Even so, I just don’t have the heart to reveal the full extent of my reservations to my 90-year old grandmother. Her grandparents were immigrants from Germany, settling to farm in Central New York, much in the same way my father’s side of the family immigrated from Mexico a couple generations ago.

Last week my grandmother told me she really wanted to read our book. I wish I could snap my fingers and a publisher would pick it up this week. More than giving her the satisfaction of reading her favorite granddaughter’s story, it would help explain the tangled tale of why whatever immigration reform the administration is plotting probably won’t benefit my family and me.

The author and her grandmother “GG”

Last night, she asked me about the inaugural speech. Did I see it? It was great. I told her no, that I’d rather just hear about the new laws getting passed than getting my hopes dashed again. That I wish he would stand up to corporations trying to milk our country dry of every last taxpayer dollar. I’d much prefer to hear about new initiatives passed investing in solar power than hear that Keystone XL is getting new rein in the Lower 48. But when she told me she wanted to send a letter to our senator, Chuck Schumer, I thought to myself, what could Chuck do at this point? We’re not a Dreamer in a university town with several thousand signatures behind us. We’re an unlikely unit of three: one Mexican man with a junior-high education who just wants to have meaningful work, one Ivy-League educated thirty-something, years away from her career and a toddler who might never go to school in her second country of citizenship. But I kept silent, because who am I to knock a great-grandmother’s undying optimism?

I share my grandmother’s hope, and the hope of millions: I want meaningful immigration laws passed, the kind that would allow my husband, daughter and me to return home to the U.S. together as a family. I’d rather see this happen than hearing for the umpteenth time that immigration reform is in the news, or surmise that Latinos are simply pawns in another political game. Our story is a part of the book Amor and Exile because I wanted to share our voice and illustrate an incredibly complex subject in that way that only a personal tale can. In the event that we cannot get our book to the public before the immigration reform debate happens, I’ll need to find another way to contribute to this debate.

But I’ll admit, I’m struggling to figure out how to do more than what I’ve already done. Championing immigration reform is a bittersweet battle for me. Although millions of youth and families like ours—and the U.S. economy—stand to benefit from immigration reform, because our family is suffering from a draconian time bar, the likelihood that we will benefit is very slim.

Of course I do allow opportunities for inspiration. I listened to part of that speech today, to Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem. His message of unity, of vision beyond the things that separate us struck a chord of kinship in me, even released some tears to cleanse my eyes that are frankly too young to be so chronically pessimistic. With this choice of poet, with this message of hope, I look forward to some choice actions taking the place of choice words on Capitol Hill this year. And in listening to this poet’s work, I am inspired to rise to the challenge of communicating exactly why it is that I can’t go home, and how, in an ideal world, my fellow citizens could help get me back there. I’ve always been a willing soldier of idealism, and I know there is a lot of work to do.

Maybe if I get to go back home to the U.S. with my family as a result of this next presidential term, I will watch that inaugural speech after all.

Uncomfortable contexts

Now that all the hype has died down from the proposed changes to immigration rules by the Obama administration, immigration has returned to its normal back burner location in the media. And those of us in exile, whose lives aren’t yet affected (or won’t ever be) by these small, potential policy alterations, simply go on with the daily reality of being detached from our home countries for an indeterminate amount of time. Not that I got too excited about the announcement in the first place. Sure, I think it would be great for the immigration process to be easier for families, but with the exception of the latest Keystone announcement, and especially demonstrated by the indefinite detention bill, Obama hasn’t had the greatest track-record at promise-keeping. The fact that this announcement was made in an election year, when he’s had the last four years to do it (or more, like not be the top deportation president) also makes me wonder if this is a popularity ploy.

But my point here is not to single out Obama as the cause of our immigration woes. The origin of that problem goes back way beyond him and also isn’t the point of this post. The dialogue that the rule-changes generated was good news to me, but I must confess I wasn’t inspired by the announcement, so I wasn’t compelled to comment on it. That was a good thing because I didn’t have the chance to do so. In fact it was probably a really good thing I was so busy training at my new job, because that way I didn’t have time to get too bummed out that the new rules would have zero effect on my husband’s and my case.

At the end of 2012, some personal situations developed, including a medical problem, that forced my hand economically and led me to take on part-time work that unfortunately means a temporary break from writing my piece for Amor and Exile. Since the beginning of this month, I’ve just been assisting Nathaniel with editing his chapters, hoping for moments like today to get back on our blog, but with sustained optimism that it won’t be too long before I can get back to finishing my chapters.

One of the only things that’s good about being so busy that you don’t have much time to think (much less write) is that disturbing thoughts, well, disturb you less. The prospect of a regular income also does enough for your panorama that it helps distract you from negativity that might otherwise cloud your focus. But that doesn’t mean that the disappointing fact that the proposed rule changes won’t help us didn’t get discussed. In fact, last night it came up in the kitchen, in the context of an edit I did of Nathaniel’s chapter on waivers. I’d mentioned to Margo that not one, not two, but three of the individuals profiled in the book are from the state we live in, Queretaro, and what a small world it is. He mulled this over and wondered aloud about another couple we know who’s in exile, spefically how their prospects for legalization compare to our own. I acknowledged that they had a long road ahead of them, and we chatted a bit about the arbitrary nature of immigration agents’ decisions on individual cases, and how when it comes down to it, your future fate in the U.S. has a lot to do with luck. Then we had dinner and put the topic out of our heads.

But some things are too disturbing to ignore, elbowing their way into your consciousness without even saying “excuse me.” That same night, perhaps inspired by chapter editing, I made time to pen a short post on my own blog as an update to my evolving personal situation. I mentioned the same friend whose fate we’d been contemplating while cooking dinner, and how we’d recently learned she was expecting and how I felt lucky to be able to provide her with some guidance and advice about impending motherhood in a foreign country. Right as I finished my post, though, that same friend messaged me: they’d just received some damning feedback about their immigration case, that they’d just gotten their FOIA back, that their attorney hadn’t represented them in the way they would have liked, that they’d have to stay here longer than they’d hoped, etc. She was completely distraught.

I tried to console her in the best way I knew how, drawing on the years that I’d lived in my own personal hell of being mentally consumed by not being able to live where I wanted to due to my husband’s legal immigration situation. But she was just so down that she was practically inconsolable, and I knew she just had to go through it herself. In the end it’s a deeply personal journey to the other side of accepting that, if you want to stay with your partner, you might have to live the rest of your life in a country that you never chose to live in. Going to bed, I thought about how much our situation has strained our relationship, how much I wish I had had someone in my shoes to talk to when I went through those worst moments of losing hope and my way. How people who observe our situation might think I am especially strong to be able to withstand the last 5 years of my life in a less than ideal professional and social situation, but how vulnerable I still feel.

I can sit back and watch the hype rise and fall when it comes to politically motivated legislative proposals. But when individual tragedies plague my mind, like those of our friend, who ultimately reminded me of the aspects of our own situation that I prefer not to think of daily, I feel driven to speak out. Knowing that the handful of compelling stories I’m personally acquainted with are so few, but so emblematic of a continent-wide problem (I might go so far as to even say tragedy—my friend graduated at the top of her class in her graduate school), it outrages me. So little of this comes out in the national dialogue on immigration. It deepens my commitment to share our story, to not let it get swept under the rug as yet another piece of collateral damage (read: deportations) in the war on culture, drugs, bilateral trade agreements, or whatever we deem as the root cause(s) of our broken immigration system. I don’t disagree that Mexico has a lot of its own responsibility, or that some deportation cases involve unsavory individuals that don’t deserve to stay in the U.S. But the vast majority of individuals seeking adjustment of status are just hard-working people who, like all immigrants who’ve built America, want a chance to continue contributing to society, legitimately. Further, how can we ignore that yes, immigrants, both undocumented and legal, do make a positive impact on our economy, especially at a time when that push is so needed?

Halfway into my period of de facto exile before we can apply to re-enter the U.S. as a family, I can’t say I am much clearer on how or why this system works the way it does. Or what it means for my life, like where I’ll be in five years. Like my friend, I’ve felt this uncomfortable context one too many times in the past, one in which our emotions, our lives, are at the mercy of politically-rooted government proposals and decisions, that appear and fade as arbitrarily as the wind blows. Also, like my friend, I want nothing more than to have a shred of control over our destiny. Ironically, this leads me closer to a point where I cease to allow my expectations about our case’s final outcome to have the power to determine my quality of life. I wish it could be the same for everyone in my situation, but I’m afraid we can’t depend on the politicians to take care of that problem for us.

Some mixed-status families to get immigration reprieve

Waiting room at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez

After a year or more of quiet planning, the Obama Administration will announce today that it intends to process immigrant hardship waivers within the U.S., allowing many more undocumented immigrants with U.S. citizen spouses and parents to apply without risking the immigration bars that have plagued hundreds of thousands of families since 1997.

Julia Preston at the New York Times broke the story early Friday morning, quoting Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that handles waiver requests: “The goal is to substantially reduce the time that the U.S. citizen is separated from the spouse or child when that separation would yield an extreme hardship.”

The changes are not immediate and will have to undergo a year-long rule making process, according to the Times. They may also be subject to significant political and Congressional push back during the coming year.

The waiver process has been a major element of my reporting for Amor and Exile, and I have been hearing hints of this change for about a year now, though the Administration kept it under tight wraps. In January 2011, I visited the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico where 75 percent of all of these waivers are processed and officials there hinted that USCIS was working on a plan to consolidate some of its international operations within the United States.

In August I had discussions with congressional staff on Capitol Hill who told me that the Congressional Hispanic Caucus had been pressuring Obama to make this change.

More recently I learned that things had been changing in Juarez since I visited a year ago. Much of the USCIS staff had left for posts in the U.S. and immigration attorneys in the U.S. were noticing the wait times growing and some degree of disorganization in processing hardship waivers. USCIS announced a conference call on October 14 to explain a new procedure for people wishing to file their I-601s, or hardship waivers, in which they would send the application to a service center in the United States rather than filing at a foreign consulate or embassy. But on the same afternoon that it was scheduled, the conference call was suddenly canceled, even as attorneys waited for the call to begin. It was never rescheduled.

The expected announcement Friday in the Federal Register signals the administration’s intention to allow immigrants to apply for the I-601 hardship waiver from within the United States, rather than forcing them to leave the country first, which triggers 3-year, 10-year and even permanent bars from re-entering, and presents a high risk for many families who may otherwise qualify. The new policy, once approved, would provide more assurance that an applicant qualified for the waiver before he or she left the country to pick up the visa. It could help out many mixed immigration status families who qualify for waivers but have been afraid to leave the U.S. in order to apply.

According to the New York Times:

The journey toward the green card to which they were entitled was so fraught with risks for the illegal immigrants that many families simply decided to live in hiding and not apply.

Now, Citizenship and Immigration Services proposes to allow the immigrants to obtain a provisional waiver in the United States, before they leave for their countries to pick up their visas. Having the waiver in hand will allow them to depart knowing that they will almost certainly be able to return, officials said. The agency is also seeking to sharply streamline the process to cut down the wait times for visas to a few weeks at most.

I have not seen the language of the Federal Register notice (it does not appear to be posted as of 3 am EST Friday) nor have I spoken to anyone since seeing the New York Times article on Twitter just now, but there are a few major questions about this policy that come to mind.

  • Will it further define “extreme hardship?” Up to now, the immigrant seeking a waiver has to show that their American citizen or permanent resident spouse (or fiancé/fiancée) would suffer extreme hardship if they were not granted a visa. But that hardship is not very well defined and is largely up to the discretion of the official reviewing the case. For example, having American children together or being forced to live apart from a spouse is not considered a hardship.
  • What about couples who do not currently qualify for a waiver? Common immigration violations like re-entering the country after a deportation or even just a quick trip home disqualify many people for the waiver. Many of the families who have avoided the waiver process and remained in the shadows may still not qualify for this new program.
  • What will happen to families who are denied the provisional waiver under the new process? Will they face immediate deportation?

I will try to get some answers to these questions soon. [UPDATED post here.]

In the meantime, the news gives new hope to many families. From the New York Times story:

“Yay!” said Nancy Kuznetsov, an American citizen and immigration advocate who was separated for more than four years from her husband, Vitali, from Belarus. Ms. Kuznetsov has battled for years for the waiver fix.

“This is a wonderful humane change that recognizes the importance of American citizens,” said Ms. Kuznetsov, vice president of American Families United, an organization of Americans facing struggles with the immigration system.

Can we really fight deportations one at a time?

In the last month we’ve seen a lot of exciting news on the political front regarding support for undocumented immigrants. Undocumented Dream Activists Jonathan Perez and Isaac Barrera turned themselves in at a Border Patrol office on November 10th in an effort to draw attention to conflicting policies in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency—ICE is not following internal policy to prioritize resources by only detaining and deporting serious criminals.

A little over a week later, on November 21, actions by the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ, One Family One Alabama Rally) brought together a number of elected officials from the states of California, Illinois, New York, Texas, and Arizona to hear from Alabaman elected officials, law enforcement and community members about how the draconian HB56 is undermining the economy, security, and collective spirit of goodwill and justice in their state.

Countless journalists and media outlets are cropping up increasing the amount of in-depth, well-balanced coverage that the subject deserves (see our blogroll) This is positive press, and a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned. More and more people are questioning the increasingly intolerant environment that hardworking undocumented immigrants encounter in the U.S.  It’s more heartening than President Obama’s relative silence on the matter of being the one President who’s deported the most individuals (and his term isn’t even up). A perception of outrage and action is far better than the depressing panorama revealed by the competing Republican candidates for the 2012 elections with regard to immigration policy.

But there is one immigration and the media-related phenomenon that I feel like I ought to view as positive but that in reality I view as somewhat concerning. It is the amount of petition signing requests I’ve received regarding individuals on the brink of deportation in the last several months. Don’t get me wrong—ever since I became an environmental activist at 15, I learned the power of petitions for enacting change. And ever since I got Internet at my house where I live in exile with my husband (a former undocumented immigrant in Mexico), I dutifully sign on to these sites and sign the petitions. I don’t normally “state a reason” for signing the petition, but if I were to, I’d say something like, “Read the inscription on the Statue of Liberty” or “because this student wants to contribute to American society, and we need more people like him/her.” Then I think to myself, I hope they have better luck than we did, and go on with my day’s business. Some of them do, happily, end in victory.

It’s not that I’m not against getting signatures on petitions per se—the problem I see is that the cases aren’t letting up, much less ever ending. Today I read a tweet that we need to get someone home with their fiancee by Christmas. I think to myself, yes, we do, but how many other thousands of individuals besides this one person would also like to be home for the holidays with their loved ones? Last week I read an article by Valeria Fernandez about a woman from Michoacan whose husband is American and whose run of luck in the U.S. may be about to come to an end. She has all the same potential tragedy if she had to go back to Mexico as any of the petition requests I’ve received; she would be separated from her family, her business would be ruined, etc. But a quick search on change.org revealed no hits for Maria Teresa Fuentes. As I read the article, her story sounded more and more eerily like my husband’s previous situation, and the sense of helplessness we had when facing our final decision to take destiny into our own hands and move to Mexico. Her husband’s comment: “I just want to go to Washington D.C. (to) meet with someone there and see what we can do to help my wife,” he said. “This gives me so much grief. Someone has to listen.”

But every time I receive a petition benefiting a single person’s case, I can’t help but wonder if trying to win immigration reform case by case is the most strategic direction for the movement to go in. Even though I’m experiencing the direct effects of displacement by deportation, I have yet to feel fully entitled to make my strategy criticisms public, since I’m “only a spouse” and “not an expert” (hopefully I’ll get over that issue). But I ask anyways: what would happen if we combined all the energy spent on individual cases and petitions and used it to lobby for comprehensive immigration reform on Capitol Hill that we can rely on, that’s truly fair and just, and/or, in the case of ICE, agency-wide policy follow-through?

More than most people I know, I want to see undocumented students be able to complete their educations and go on to be successful professionals as legal U.S. residents. I want immigrant spouses to be able to stay with their American families on U.S. soil (or wherever they choose) without having to go through stressful forced relocations the way we’ve had to (or worse). But I am concerned about the current nature of the discourse and political action regarding immigration reform.

My most idealistic expectation is that we shouldn’t need to start a petition, or find a representative in Washington for every single case. More than just victorious immigration cases that boil down to luck or influence, opportunities are needed for people who don’t have access to sites like change.org but who still deserve a shot at legalization. I worry that today’s “good feeling” of one victorious petition campaign, despite making a positive but tiny dent, distracts us from the overall panorama—that millions of individuals are living in an undeserved underground due to a long detour in how our country values its immigrants of all skill levels and skin colors. We need to acknowledge the importance of all immigrants to American society, not just the wealthy, well-educated, or papered ones, and work to eliminate the knee-jerk biases that come with incomplete understandings of the system.

There is a lot of history to this movement that I’m not privy to, despite the fact that I’ve read and experienced much more about it than most of my friends and family. There have been all sorts of failed attempts at reform and even worse laws passed that have made things worse for immigrants and polarized the situation further. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, the U.S. immigration scene, the kind that pits descendants of undocumented immigrants against their brethren who don’t have the benefit of laxer laws or amnesty. It’s the kind of situation  that leaves activists with no choice but to split into factions and seek their best chances in Congress. Dream Activists may be uniquely suited for organizing around this issue, as students in a closer-knit collegiate setting. And it’s harder to argue with the idea that young children and students who arrived in the U.S. undocumented by no choice of their own ought to be extended the same rights as legal residents, vs. getting behind adults who, despite not having had “a line to wait in,” made an adult decision to seek economic refuge via illegal entry.

Perhaps that’s where the problem arises: the inherent lack of unity among the individuals affected by these policies (I’d argue, all of us).  It’s a difficult matter to speak frankly about, even in families with affected individuals. But it’s a matter we must address if we are to make any substantial headway in terms of comprehensive immigration reform.

And when it comes to activism that targets positive change in the lives of immigrants, I would hope that in addition to campaigns won by the individuals who manage to pull off major online mobilization or gain personal favor in Washington, public backlash will grow and coalesce against policies that unfairly target ALL individuals, students and adults alike, who frankly, the U.S. economy and many American families depend on.