Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Life in a mixed-status family: 'It is hard to explain'

Photo by nunodantas/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A post yesterday kicked off a series of posts related to families of mixed immigration status, with readers sharing their own stories. Mixed-status families are a common but seldom discussed phenomenon in the United States, composed of some members who were born here or have legal status, and others who don't. They have been a semi-regular theme on this site since August, when President Obama's long-lost undocumented half-uncle was arrested and detained.

What is it like to live in a family in which your spouse, your parents, a sibling or other relative is undocumented? KPCC’s Public Insight Network has been asking that question over the past few days, and the responses from those willing to share their experiences have been illuminating. In yesterday's post, a young U.S. citizen whose parents have tried but failed to adjust their immigration status wrote: "Fear is involved in everything we do and everywhere we go."

In an earlier post, a woman wrote about how things one might take for granted - like adding your spouse to the company health plan - are impossible to do when that spouse is undocumented.

Today's personal story comes from a 34-year-old legal permanent resident in Orange County. He came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 13 with his family in 1989, overstaying their visitor's visas. He obtained his green card last year, but because two of his four siblings remain undocumented (a third has a work permit), he asked that his name not be published for fear of their deportation. Here's what he wrote:

As a family, since my youngest brother and my sister are undocumented, we are unable to go anywhere there might be a chance with encountering ICE agents.

My siblings and I have not gone back to the small town in Mexico where we grew up, even when close family members have been sick or passed away, afraid to not be able to come back to our families here in the U.S. Since checkpoints are quite common in Orange County where we live, we keep each other informed via text messages whenever we find out about checkpoints in order to avoid an unnecessary encounter with the authorities.

Regardless of our mixed immigration status, the lines of authority within our family have stayed unchanged. We've relied mostly on our parents for support and for help whenever we've found ourselves in financial struggles or whenever we needed someone with legal documents in order for us to do or buy what we needed to do.

My dad was the first one to acquire his citizenship, then my mom got her permanent residency through my dad's citizenship status. By the time my dad became a naturalized U.S. citizen we were past the age where he could petition to quickly adjust our legal status.

My sister, who was 15 when we arrived is now 36 and a mother of 3 U.S. citizens. Her and her husband are still undocumented. My brother who was 8 when we arrived is now 30 and a father of 3 U.S. citizens. He was detained by ICE 2 years ago and currently holds a temporary work permit while he fights his case. My youngest brother who was 4 when we arrived and is now 26. He lives with his girlfriend and her daughter who is a U.S. citizen. Both are still undocumented.

As for myself, I was 13 when I arrived and now 34. My wife and 3 kids are U.S. citizens and I now hold a conditional permanent residency thanks to my wife who decided to marry me after a friend's mom was detained and deported. Fearing that I would encounter the same fate, she decided to marry me after 7 years of living together.

(In response to "What frustrations or specific problems do you experience as a member of a family with mixed immigration status?) Fear. Fear that my siblings who are still undocumented will be picked up by ICE agents and deported. Fear that they'll be deported and their children be picked up by Child Protective Services. Fear that they lose their employment due to their legal status.

(In response to "What do you wish others knew about families whose members have a mix of citizenship, legal residency or undocumented/lapsed immigration status?) Most undocumented immigrants keep their legal status to themselves and their family, they stay in the shadows afraid to be found out. It is hard to explain how to live undocumented or with undocumented people to someone who has never had that challenge.

It is hard to explain to someone who takes their citizenship, their social security number and their liberty to move around for granted how hard it is to find employment, to drive and even to find housing without those things. Only an immigrant knows how hard it is to come to this great country. Only an undocumented immigrant knows the challenges in daily life and the abuses by employers and threats by coworkers when they know or suspect of their undocumented status.

Do you have a story to share? Feel free to post comments below, or view the Public Insight Network questions regarding mixed status here.