How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Cross-status romance: When one partner has papers and the other doesn't, it's complicated

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Navigating the rocky terrain of dating and relationships is difficult enough. But for cross-status couples, romance is even more complicated.

Sipping on a latte in a Boyle Heights coffee shop, 29-year-old Erick Huerta isn’t shy about describing his relationship status: "Single, bilingual, and ready to mingle," he said with a grin.

He's employed, has his own place, is well-educated – an eligible bachelor, by most anyone's standards. But then there's the issue of his other status: his immigration status.

Huerta's family brought him to the U.S. illegally when he was seven. And as a single adult, it's come back to haunt him time and again. He recalls an awkward exchange three years ago, after his then-girlfriend – a U.S. citizen – told her mother that she was dating him.

“She was telling her about me, told her that I’m undocumented," Huerta said. "And her mom’s advice to her was, you know, just like that, be careful, because you know those people only want one thing, i.e. a green card.”

They continued to date, but the doubts planted doomed the relationship. He was crushed when she eventually broke up with him, more so because his immigration status was a factor.

"The way I processed it for myself was that the person that I had deep feelings for, and all these new experiences with, after a while,  turned around and told me - in my head - 'Oh, you're not good enough for me, or for anybody, because you're undocumented, and you don't have papers and can't get a job,'" Huerta said.

His heartbreak story isn't unique, said UCLA PhD candidate Laura Enriquez. She studied the relationship experiences of more than a hundred and twenty young singles between the ages of 20 and 35, who came to the U.S. illegally as children.

Unlike recent immigrants, these young people are culturally American. They're drawn to partners they identify with culturally, which often leads them to date U.S. citizens or legal residents. At the same time, growing up in the U.S. exposes them to American dating expectations and traditions – which can be hard to pull off if you can't legally drive, for example, or lack valid identification.

"So you go to the movies, maybe you see a rated R movie, which sometimes you need to show an ID for," Enriquez said. "Or you get a drink at happy hour to a bar, where you need to show your ID to prove you are 21. So those sorts of normative activities are things they sort of expect to be able to do, and they find that they can’t because of the limitations of their status."

"The inability to drive legally or pay for dates is especially hard on men", Enriquez said, "who feel under pressure to act as providers."

For both men and women, there are also deeper issues like trust, negative stereotypes, and the attitudes of parents and other relatives, some of whom misinterpret the role of marriage in legalizing one's status.

"There are people who become hesitant to let relationships grow intimate", Enriquez said, "never going past the first couple of dates. Others will avoid relationships altogether."

"I had a hard time dating," said Carlos Amador, who arrived in the U.S. with his family at 14. "I always made excuses that I didn't have money, I didn't have a reliable car, I didn't have a driver's license to take someone out. I was always working, always going to school, involved in immigrant youth issues. I always made these excuses to kind of block me from getting hurt, I guess."

Amador eventually did start a relationship with a U.S. citizen he met in graduate school at UCLA, where both were studying social work. They married three years ago.

His wife, Bridgette Amador, never doubted that Carlos liked her for the rights reasons. But it was still a challenge for her to adapt to the reality of his status. On their first outing together, she drove him and some of his family members to a friend's graduation party in Orange County.  

"And on the way back, there were checkpoints around the community center that we were at, and so everybody in the party was giving each other the notice, don't take this street, don't take that street," Bridgette recalls. "So that was quite an awakening for me. Like, oh, this is our first date, and I'm, like, hiding fugitives.' It was just different than any other dates I've been on."

But she persevered and for them, it's worked out ideally. Carlos now has a green card, a process made easier by the fact that he first arrived in the U.S. legally with a visa, which he overstayed. People who enter the country illegally face penalties if they try to adjust their status and have a much harder time doing so, even through marriage.

Carlos says he feels fortunate, especially now, with their first child on the way. He no longer fears he might be deported, like he used to.

"Being a permanent resident now, soon to be able to qualify for citizenship, also gives me some sort of relief to know that our girl is coming," he said, "and we won't have to be afraid of another day coming around and me being gone."

As for Erick Huerta, he's feeling his own sense of relief after qualifying last May for deferred action, a two-year reprieve from deportation that's allowed him to obtain a work permit.

He's working two jobs now, including on a campaign to unionize car wash workers. And for the first time in his adult life, he now has disposable income to spend on socializing.

"When going out on dates it's like hey, let's go see a movie, or let's get something to eat – oh, yeah, let's go to that restaurant, I don't care," Huerta said. "It's just made it easier and more fluid."

He's still a little cautious after his experience a few years ago, but he feels more confident now.

"It’s like okay, you have a work permit," he jokes, "So you’re not after me for my papers."

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