My Marriage to an Illegal Immigrant (Part 1) – by Terry Howard

At the center of the contentious immigration debate; the finger-pointing and the promise to “build a wall” on the southern border, are human beings who like everyone else want opportunities for a better life for themselves and their loved ones. “Nadia” is no exception.

But let’s start this at the end, that being a gut wrenching decision by her family to finally pack up and relocate to the relative safety of Winnipeg, Canada. A dozen or so years fighting through the immigration system, the bureaucracy, the morass and the constant fear of deportation can wear down even the strongest of the strong.

You see, seated across from me was “Nadia,” a white female, born in North Carolina, raised in Michigan, a holder of an MBA and a fluent speaker of several languages including Spanish. A divorcee with three young adults of her own, Nadia met and married “Gilberto,” an undocumented co-worker from Mexico. Out of that union has come two young children. And now they are a “mixed status family” of seven.

Mixed status family?

It might sound like a strange term, but it’s really quite easy to understand.  A mixed-status family just means that someone within the family unit has a different immigration status than the rest of the family.  These types of families can look very different, and the immigrants can be from any country in the world – there is no “typical” mixed-status family.

Nadia’s voice was hushed and at times hard to hear against the noisy traffic across the parking lot. I promised not to mention her name in anything I wrote as a consequence of our meeting. You’ll see why as you hear her story.

“I will never be separated from my family, even if that means moving to Europe or South America. I just want somewhere safe to live where our family can stay together in peace,” she stressed.

Gilberto was 18 years old when he first came to the US but was apprehended by border patrol. Because of his language barrier he mistakenly gave the Border Patrol agent an incorrect date of birth and was accused of misrepresentation, which carries serious consequences for immigrants seeking legal status in the United States.  For Gilberto this meant “waiver denied,” two unforgiving words that would come to haunt the family over the ensuing decade.

“As stressful as it all was, I was determined to respond to every request for us to prove extreme hardship if my husband was forced to leave me and our kids and return to Mexico,” Nadia declared while mentioning her 800 page file with containing medical records, dozens of letters from family and friends, as well as copies of Spanish-language newspaper articles describing the drug violence that plagues Gilberto’s home state in Mexico.

“My whole life is embedded in these 800 pages.  Every page of evidence I submitted for the waiver had to prove hardship. I even had to prove that it would be a hardship to move my whole family to Mexico to be with him, which of course it would be,” she continued.

In 2012, President Obama’s administration began implementing a major rule change authorizing spouses of US citizens to remain in the United States while their waivers were being considered, a presidential act that meant so much Nadia and so many others who were in similar situations. Prior to this rule change, Gilberto would have been required to leave the United States for up to one year while his waiver was considered.

“Our provisional waiver was denied in 2014,” she reported.  It was all due to the incorrect “misrepresentation” accusation stemming from Gilberto’s encounter with Border Patrol years before. Typically, misrepresentation occurs only when a potential immigrant provides incorrect information and receives an information benefit, such as entry into the United States, as a result of the incorrect statement. In Gilberto’s case, this did not occur.

The cost her family paid was huge both financially and psychologically. Gilberto ended up selling property he owned in Mexico to help pay for the close to $40,000 to pay immigration lawyers, some of them unscrupulous.

Nadia didn’t flinch one bit in response to my question probing the psychological impact of this ongoing ordeal on her family.

“Having to allay their fears when they ask ‘Mommy, are they coming to take our daddy away from us?’” is hard to imagine if you’ve not experienced it,” she explained while holding back tears.

Even though Gilberto did eventually get his permanent residency and now has the esteemed “Green Card” that is the dream of many would-be immigrants to the United States around the world, Nadia’s family is permanently scarred by the psychological trauma that they endured. “I felt like my country would rather me leave – take my children and just leave – than have us here together.  I’ll never get over that heartbreak.”

“Something inside me broke because of what we went through, and everything that is going on with the current political environment here in the US terrifies me,” Nadia continued. “I’m tired of being afraid that everything that we have worked so hard to achieve could be stripped away from us in seconds.”

Plans are currently underway for Nadia and her family to move to Canada.

CLICK for PART 2 of this narrative:  we probe deeper into the size and scope of this issue, the health and financial consequences, the real risk of separation, daily life in the typical mixed status household and how all this plays out in work, school and social situations. 

Terry Howard
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