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

Why many mixed-status families stay that way

A mural at the Cento Cultural de La Raza in San Diego, June 2008.
A mural at the Cento Cultural de La Raza in San Diego, June 2008.
Photo by San Diego Shooter/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A recent post explored the extent of mixed-status families in the United States after the arrest and detention of President Obama's immigrant half-uncle, looking at the First Family as yet another family with immigrant roots in which one or more members is undocumented.

Multigenerational mixed-status families composed of U.S. citizens, legal residents and undocumented immigrants, often under one roof, are far more common than one might think. Last week, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who is Mexican American, acknowledged that her paternal grandparents were undocumented immigrants.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimated in 2009 that there were 8.8 million people living in families of mixed immigration status in the United States, a conservative estimate in that it only counts families with undocumented immigrants and their U.S. citizen children.

Why is it that mixed-status families are such a common occurrence? It has much to do with the way immigration laws apply to families. Having a U.S. citizen relative does not guarantee easy legal passage to the United States for that citizen's adult children or siblings; for some, especially Mexicans and Filipinos, the wait can take decades.

And contrary to popular opinion, marriage is not the solution to many a mixed-status couple's immigration woes. Those who entered with temporary visas and illegally overstayed stand a chance of adjusting through marriage. But those who entered illegally are most often out of luck, even if they marry a U.S citizen, as laws have tightened in the last decade.

In a piece published last year, the Golden Gate University Law Review used one couple's case as an example of what typically occurs when an undocumented immigrant, in this case a young man who grew up in the United States, marries a citizen:

After getting married, Jane and Eric visited an immigration attorney to get help applying for Eric's green card. The attorney responded that because Eric did not enter the country lawfully they have three options: Eric can remain in unlawful status and risk deportation, Eric and Jane can leave the United States together for ten years, or they can separate for ten years while Eric remains outside of the country.

The attorney said that for several years there was a remedy called section 245(i), after section 245(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The 245(i) remedy permitted immigrants like Eric to pay a $1,000 penalty and apply for permanent residence status from within the country, but it expired in April of 2001. Without such a remedy, Eric has to leave the United States to obtain permanent residence status. Because Eric lived in the United States without lawful status for more than one year, he will be forced to stay outside of the country for ten years before he can be granted any lawful immigration status.

Jane asked if they could do anything to avoid Eric being outside the United States for ten years. The attorney told them about an extreme hardship waiver, but Eric would still have to leave the country to get this waiver. He said that the waiver's requirements can be difficult to meet and it is infrequently granted. Jane told the attorney that she is four months pregnant. The attorney said that Jane's pregnancy alone may not be enough to satisfy the requirements of extreme hardship.

And so it starts. The result is that it's not uncommon to find families in which one parent is a U.S. citizen, as are the children, but the other parent remains without status indefinitely. Also common are families in which one sibling, usually the eldest, is foreign-born and remains without status, while the rest of the children are U.S. citizens.

We'll be exploring the mixed-status phenomenon further in future posts. In the meantime, if any readers would like to volunteer personal anecdotes, feel free to post them below.