The list: for a former sister-in-exile

In the going on 13 years I’ve been in Mexico, we’ve had to say “goodbye” to several good friends who have moved “back north” or elsewhere. In Amor and Exile, I wrote about a variety of different reasons that other expats end up down here in Querétaro and the solidarity we have being foreigners who’ve chosen to relocate here.

We hosted a reunion gathering of sorts last month when one of our dear friends who moved back to the States a few years ago finally was able to come back and visit. Kind of a big sister figure to a few of us, it was great to have her and her family here, reminisce about when our kids were toddlers and besties together, and that feeling of sisterhood while raising a family in a foreign country.

Around the same time we were hosting our good friends who were in town for the weekend, we were saying a different kind of goodbye to some other dear friends who had an immigration exile situation very similar to ours, but who finally got their break to return as a family this past summer.

Heather and Horacio (H2) met over a decade ago in Georgia, fell in love and decided to get married and start a family. As fate would have it, Horacio, also from Central Mexico (San Luis Potosí) experienced legal challenges to an adjustment of status due to having overstayed and working while on a tourist visa to the U.S. Heather ended up accompanying Horacio down to México as I had Margo. We both actually lived in Querétaro for several years without knowing it, but didn’t meet each other until we published Amor and Exile, Heather found the blog, and reached out to try and make contact.

To make a long story short, H2 didn’t have to apply for one but two waivers. Their first was an I-212, similar to ours that we applied for last June and got approved last September; and their second (an I-601) was precipitated by a torturous sort of double jeopardy penalty handed out late in his application process, at the end of his 2nd visa interview last year.

We had been waiting right alongside H2 , first for the visa interview, then for the results, for one, because that’s what friends are for, and secondly, because our paths have mirrored each other’s so closely over the last 12+ years. In fact, the things we two exiled ladies had in common in our journey are so downright uncanny we decided to keep a list of things we both have or have done:

  • Both are from the East Coast of the U.S.
  • Both are educators
  • Both have younger brothers
  • Both left the U.S. with our “inadmissible” husbands on a voluntary departure
  • Both stopped at the Grand Canyon on our last trips out of the U.S. with husbands
  • Both moved to Mexico in 2006 (3 weeks apart)
  • Both had a Nissan Platina car
  • Both lived in Querétaro (for 5 yrs w/o even knowing each other)
  • Both taught English in Mexico
  • Both had their first borns in Hospital Santa Cruz
  • Both first babies were born in the same room!
  • Same immigration lawyer (I referred them to ours)
  • Both had to apply for I-212 waivers for their husbands
  • Both had I-212 waivers approved

This running list of things in common became like a joke for us, with all of our uncanny similarities. It was one of many go-to sources of humor that our two families needed during so many months and years of darkness and despair, trying to hold out hope that we might be able to choose our destinies as a family and return to our homelands together with our families. H2 and their family did end up briefly separated for a short while while Heather worked as a schoolteacher close to family in Pennsylvania and took their two boys with her, a natural reaction to needing and wanting to command a better income to raise a family than one can in Central Mexico, and also based on the assumption that her husband would sail through his 2nd visa interview and have his green card that same calendar year. Unfortunately that plan got derailed when a consular agent decided that one waiver was not enough to clear Horacio’s name and that the family would need to prove dire hardship and greater deserving of returning together to the States than normal circumstances would dictate, and that Horacio’s overstay of his visa would jeopardize more than twelve years later.

The first and only time Heather and I finally decided to write down all our things in common was when our paths were finally about to diverge. It wasn’t when Horacio got the rejection at the consulate in Ciudad Juarez, which was earth shattering for their family, and which also shook us to the core. At their dinner table in their home a while later, Horacio related the depth of his sadness to me about when, after a series of unforgiving questioning at the bank-teller style booths in the consulate, he was shown a blue slip that invariably meant his visa application was being denied. Since we had the same lawyer (they got started on their process faster than we did), the first thought that went through my mind was “what did they do wrong?” The truth is more complex than can be described here. But beyond the facts of their case, which differ slightly from ours, on an emotional level we grieved that rejection with H2, and tears rolled right alongside them as Horacio recounted the interview and the hours that followed in the lonely hotel room in CDJ. We didn’t just know – we felt, we saw, we understood the letdown that it represented for them, and how easily that experience could be ours in a few short months.

Our two families’ shared trauma, a emotional and legal roller coaster that our children and extended families also ride, in all its grandparent-depriving, borderline bipolar parental mood highs and lows, results in a keen, unique bond uncommon to any other family friendships we’ve had. We actually led quite normal, ordinary lives here in Querétaro, both as teacher/trainers, bridging intercultural communities both at work and in our personal lives. Our WhatsApp conversations were filled with affirmative, humorous messages. Our families share a love for nature and we often had the privilege of enjoying outdoor adventures together. Then, when immigration woes invaded our consciences, there was only total, immediate, and unconditional support and understanding for each other. That is a rare privilege to share with a like-minded friend, much less in the same county two thousand miles south of home.

I write about these varying family “immigration autonomy” statuses, for lack of a better word, in Amor and Exile. Though most foreigners must apply for a U.S. visa (except those with visa waiver programs), most friends are not subject to the same level of scrutiny and decades-long processes that H2 and my family have had to endure – they also have the freedom to relocate where they so choose, whereas our family’s only real choice is to stay put if we want to stay together. H2 shared not only that same restriction with us, but also the singular drive to rail against it, and to keep trying, against all odds, to achieve familial autonomy in the eyes of the immigration system, and at its essence, an ability to relocate wherever they so choose.

The author at her first A&E reading in Querétaro, México. Heather is against the wall at far left.
The author at her first A&E reading in Querétaro, México, and Heather, at far left.

And so we weren’t surprised at all, in fact, we were impressed and delighted, to hear when H2 went ahead and applied for that second waiver (an I-601), right away, with our same lawyer. I do have to confess that I was surprised when their waiver was approved relatively rapidly, and they got their 3rd visa interview appointment in a matter of a few months the approval, while we are still waiting 10 months after our waiver was approved. But of course each case is subject to its own intricacies and order of events. We were unbelievably overjoyed when we heard that Horacio’s visa was finally approved, in the month of June this year. I was particularly happy for Heather because I knew a June approval meant she would be able to return to the school where she taught in Pennsylvania and also enroll her sons for next school year as well. The aftermath of a visa approval, when one has been out of the country for over a decade, can be complicated, as it could be for us, if Margo is granted one, due to the simultaneous timing of leaving current jobs, all the logistics associated with relocating a family, job hunting for the primary breadwinner(s), etc. But since H2 was banking on a visa relatively soon after the I-212 approval over a year ago, they were a few steps ahead in the game. I knew the relocation was to going to happen fast.

It did in fact snowball rapidly, as they had a vacation to Guatemala already planned, and that gave them a week to pack up their belongings from Horacio’s brother’s home where they had spent the last 10+ years, a week with family in the southern U.S. before school started for Heather and the boys. When we got the good news, I quickly realized that it might be my last chance to spend time with our friends before they’d be flying north, like migratory birds in springtime.

Our two families decided to go see Spiderman in a theater at a new mall that just opened not far from our home. The new fangled movie theater felt almost VIP for general admission prices, so we had a nice time. As we were leaving, I pitched stopping for drinks, milking the last private hours we would likely get with them. To my delight, they obliged, and while we sipped margaritas and the kids played, we got the skinny on Horacio’s most recent experience in CDJ, this time accompanied by both Heather and the boys. As probably only immigration/exile geeks like us would do, we replayed Horacio’s interview over chips and guacamole down to the questions and responses and what he wore. I found myself asking if my husband who has never worn a tie would have to don one – to my relief the suggestion was no. We got plenty of advice and tips from both of them, and my feelings teetered between elation and admiration for, and solidarity with them and their persistence, to fear of our own experience not working out, and selfish sadness at how much I would be missing them very soon. The night ended too soon, and was very airy and bubbly with promise and selfies, but I resolved to say goodbye with more pathos before they departed northward.

I think H2 knew how fast things were going to go with departure, but having been in similar situations myself, and knowing how the gravity of all the details and feelings associated with major events aren’t fully appreciated until you’re in the thick of them, or perhaps afterwards, I knew they would be “riding the wave” so to say and if I wanted to see them one more time I’d have to pay close attention. There was a tiny window where my impossibly packed work schedule and their own crazy schedule of getting back from their vacation and flying to Pennsylvania would cede a space of 2 hours, literally the night before they flew out. I debated whether I should add to their stress and try to see them one last time. But since I’m big on ritual in terms of life experiences, and considering how special H2 and their family have been to us in the last 5+ years, I wanted to try.

Sitting on Horacio’s brother’s couch, as she served salmon to his brother, sister, and their niece, I couldn’t help but feel like I was intruding on a solemn family goodbye dinner. They insisted it was no trouble, served us party mix, and Horacio sat on the couch with us, but I did feel like I was imposing. It was also after 7 pm and a school night for our daughter, so I resolved to be quick. I have gotten so good with not letting immigration matters get me down any more, so I didn’t expect tears. More likely, I am just internalizing and getting numbed by all the emotional horror carried by the stories from the border and the Interior under this current administration. But as Horacio began to talk about how Margo would certainly get his own visa, and as the four of us began to reminisce about the last several years, while the kids strayed in different directions, probably shell-shocked by the weirdness of the moment, my stoic facade quickly crumbled.

To present I’m still not quite sure what obsessive behavior compelled me to pull out my Notes app and ask Heather to help me write down the list of ours things in common that we’ve been compiling over the last six years since we published Amor and Exile and she found me through our book networks and showed up at our first public book talk in Querétaro. The list certainly wasn’t a priority thing she needed to do in that moment. I can’t come up with any better explanation than it was a coping mechanism, me playing journalist to my own life, knowing that the list has been important as many times to Heather as it was to me, that it helped keep her sane through all these years in exile in Mexico to know that someone else like her was surviving, even sometimes thriving; and that for both of us no matter what happened in our husbands’ immigration fates, there was someone else in the same boat, and that maybe, just maybe, if they were doing it, we could keep doing it too.

The more years you spend in exile, the more desensitized you become to the inhumane pressures of your life amounting to a ticker tape of immigration case readouts. The only thing that is keeping us whole, human, and alive with love is knowing the other faces, hearts, and hands that are swimming upstream against the waves, waterfalls, and hurricanes of hate, and persisting in the face of them all. Thank you Heather and Horacio for touching our lives, for sharing your humanity, your friendship, your generosity, your indefatigability with us. And congratulations on this huge win in the struggle to keep our families together. We will see you soon “al otro lado,” whichever “side” it may be.

The author and her friend Heather with their families over the holidays in Central Mexico.
The author and her friend Heather with their families over the holidays in Central Mexico.

More answers on proposed immigration waiver changes

The Obama Administration announcement last week that it wants to allow some mixed immigration status families to remain together in the United States while they apply for hardship waivers was briefly turned into media debate fodder and then, apparently dropped because it is just too difficult to explain. But the few conservatives who cried foul, including Texas Republican Lamar Smith who wrote the 3- and 10-year bars into law in 1996, have very little ground to stand on here. As I reported last week, it has been in the works for a long time, it’s highly technical, it’s been suggested by multiple government and NGO reviews of the waiver process, it does not change any laws and it does not provide any new benefits for undocumented immigrants.

Houston immigration attorney Laurel Scott, who has written extensively about waivers, said the proposed rule actually improves compliance with the law. The waivers were originally intended to prevent the hardship of family separation, she said, and the proposed process would minimize the time that immigrant spouses and children of American citizens must spend abroad.

Still, the timing of the announcement and its provenance from the White House is clearly political and the pundits briefly made hay from this latest administrative decree. The moment in this news clip when CNN anchor Erin Burnett asserts to former American Immigration Lawyers Association president David Leopold that anyone who legitimately marries an American citizen can get a green card (then looks down, bites lip, blinks) highlights a huge problem for advocates of immigration reform.

Watch the clip at 2:12 for that moment:

Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State and crusading attorney who helped draft anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona and for state legislators across the country, skillfully puts the onus back on “illegal aliens, whether they decide to marry a U.S. citizen or not.” And Leopold is not quite able to counter what Moderator Burnett declares to be quite rational.

If the news that the Customs and Immigration Service will now process some “family unity” or family immigration waivers stateside accomplishes one thing, it should demonstrate to the American public once and for all that hundreds of thousands of American citizens have been living in the shadows with their undocumented spouses for the past decade.

Here’s the weird thing: Burnett is mostly right. Immigrants who marry U.S. citizens ARE generally eligible for a green card. Our national immigration system remains, technically, family friendly. BUT if they are in the United States illegally or face any of more than 60 different “inadmissibilities,” that green card may remain just out of reach.

There has been a lot of talk about this “catch-22” in the past week. USCIS puts it this way in the rule notice:The action required to regularize the status of an alien, departure from the United States, therefore is the very action that triggers the section 212(a)(9)(B)(i) inadmissibility that bars that alien from obtaining the immigrant visa.

Here it is in plain English: In order for an immigrant who entered the country illegally and then married an American citizen to get a green card, he or she has to leave the United States. But leaving triggers, in most cases, a 10-year ban (that Congress approved in 1996). To salve this catch-22, Congress crafted a series of pardons, or waivers, available for many, but they are complicated and time consuming and a bit risky to get. Applicants must show that if they are not granted a visa, their American citizen spouse or parent will suffer “extreme hardship.” Three quarters of the immigrants seeking waivers to enter the United States are from Mexico and require a visit to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; I traveled there last January to see the process first hand.

Because these waivers are difficult to understand and a major financial and emotional and legal burden for many of the couples who need them the most, many, many couples choose to stay in the US, under the radar, rather than applying for green cards and facing the ban and subsequent waiver process.

Enter Candidate Obama. The USCIS is now proposing a tiny tweak in the process that could reassure many couples. They will be able to apply for the pardon BEFORE they leave the US to pick up their visa. This proposed rule (at this point it is still a notice of intent to publish a proposed rule) would provide provisional waivers to some couples so that when they return to the US Consulate or Embassy in their home country, they will be able to get the visa more quickly and efficiently and in fewer steps.

There are lots of waivers for lots of different violations. This rule change would apply to a VERY limited set: only people who “entered without inspection” and have a US citizen spouse or parent could get the provisional waiver. So if your fiancé is a citizen, you have to get married first and if your mom is a permanent resident, you won’t qualify for a provisional waiver.

Also, if you are like Nicole, whose husband has a permanent ban, and who is already living abroad, you won’t qualify. Bear in mind that the difference between a 3 year, 10 year and permanent ban is not that great. If you have been here illegally for 6-12 months, you get a 3-year-bar and if it’s more than a year you are barred for 10 years. In both cases you would be able to utilize the new provisional waiver before leaving the US to get an immigrant visa. But if you entered the US twice, say, after a trip home to see a sick grandparent or even to introduce your wife and kids to your family—even if not caught—you are banned permanently without an opportunity for a waiver. (In the case of this permanent bar, an immigrant may be able to reapply after waiting 10 years abroad, but only a few people have to tested this procedure to date.)

It is impossible to know how many couples in the US are currently eligible for a waiver of some type. Minneapolis immigration attorney Michael Davis said today that he’s gotten dozens of calls in the past week but many of the couples inquiring face a permanent ban and so the provisional waiver would not help them.  Still, Davis thinks that processing the waivers in the US will encourage many couples to apply, once the new rule is finalized, which is supposed to be  by the end of the year.

“I think it’s going to be an incentive for a lot of people to come out and do it,” he said.

In FY2011, USCIS received 23,262 I-601 waiver applications and approved 17,790, roughly a 76 percent approval rate. The approval rate in Ciudad Juarez was closer to 90 percent last year, according to a USCIS spokesman. More than 100,000 people have applied for waivers since 2006. But there are many more people out there who are unaware of the benefit or have been unwilling to take the risk and expense of applying.

One question that remains is what will happen to applicants who are denied a provisional waiver. They will still be in the United States without papers. On a USCIS stakeholders call yesterday, immigration officials did not answer this question, instead seeking suggestions from the public, but an FAQ on the USCIS site does adress the issue:

Q. What would happen to individuals who are denied waivers under the proposed process?

A.They would be subject to USCIS guidance and law enforcement priorities for issuing Notices to Appear (NTA).  For example, convicted criminals, public safety threats, and those suspected of fraud will receive NTAs.

In other words, many of the people denied, if not priority cases for ICE, would just be back to square one—undocumented and married to Americans. But at least they would be with their families in the States rather than separated or forced to move under duress. Going into 10 months of political campaigning, I am glad that Obama is at least signaling a willingness to discuss the deep relationships that Americans have with the undocumented population. While families and family values are a fine starting point, I continue to hope that the candidates will examine their own relationships with migrants, with Mexico in particular and  with our national stake in immigration reform.