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

Life in a mixed-status family: 'Paperwork takes years'

Photo by sparkypics/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A recent series provided a glimpse into what it's like to live in a family of mixed immigration status, a family in which some members are U.S. citizens or legal residents while others - a spouse, a parent, a sibling, an adult child - remain undocumented.

Several people recently submitted their personal stories via KPCC’s Public Insight Network, which solicits input from the public on specific topics, and five of these were featured in a weeklong series of posts.

But the stories have kept coming and are worth sharing. More recently, those contributing them have delved into other aspects of the immigration process, including how difficult it is to obtain legal status or come to the U.S. legally in the first place.

Among these is Jill, a U.S.-born Las Vegas resident whose mixed-status story has a happy ending. Her formerly undocumented husband, brought here from Mexico when he was nine years old, became a legal U.S. resident in 2009. Herself the child of a legal resident from Canada, she no longer worries that her spouse could be deported at any time. But getting to that point was a frustrating experience, Jill writes, and other family members remain in immigration limbo:

When we got married, my husband was illegal. After we had our first son and political rumblings were arising about what to do about illegal immigrants, I put in the paperwork petitioning him for his legal residency. He was able to get his green card fairly quickly, however, my sister and brother-in-law are in a similar situation and have been waiting years for paperwork to come through so that my brother in law can get papers.

It's been very hard for them, as they have kids too. Our cousin also lives with us and has a visa, but then found out her visa could not be renewed. She worried because there was no work for her back in Mexico and the little that she could make here she was sending back to her family there. She now has to decide whether to stay with us, even though her visa is expired, or to go back home with her family.

Immigration paperwork for just about anything is long, tedious, and frustrating. I had a permanent resident application returned to me because I had put the checks for the fees on top instead of with each individual form. I had a passport application returned because the smile in the picture showed a tiny bit of teeth. With few exceptions, paperwork takes years and the fees are very expensive.

We worry that our relatives who are illegal could be deported (one of them was), and those that are illegal worry about losing their jobs or getting stopped by the police. We have forbidden our brother in law from travelling to Arizona and cancelled a weekend trip to the Grand Canyon.

(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?")

I wish they understood that the great majority of them are hardworking people who love their families, and would do anything for their children to have a better life. I wish they understood that there is no such thing as an "anchor baby." A mother or father can be deported at any time whether or not they have children who are citizens, and children can't apply for papers for their parents until they are 21 and have a stable job.

(In response to, "What steps, if any, have members of your family taken to correct visa or immigration problems?")

My husband is now a permanent resident and will be able to apply for citizenship in a few months. My sister in law will be able to apply for citizenship at about the same time and as soon as she gets citizenship she intends to re-apply for residency for my brother in law as a citizen so that he can finally have papers.

Jill, who works as a teacher, sees similar problems playing out in the families of her students. She concludes, "This is also a constant worry for many of the students I teach. Many of them are frustrated because many options are closed to them because of their immigration status."

That frustration is also felt by the spouses of undocumented immigrants who, unlike her, have been unable to obtain legal status for their partners. A post last week featured the story of Alison Gamez and the pending deportation of her husband. "People who don’t have undocumented family members don’t believe me when I tell them he can’t get papers," she wrote.

Other personal stories in the series included the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented parents, the legal-resident brother of undocumented siblings, and a woman born in Kansas City whose domestic partner is undocumented.

Families of mixed immigration status are surprisingly common. In 2009, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated there were 8.8 million people living in mixed-status families in the United States. Why are they so prevalent? The demand for family reunification through legal channels is much larger than the number of available immigrant visas, for one thing. It's also much more difficult to adjust one’s immigration status than commonly thought, even through marriage.

Do you have a related story to share? Feel free to post a comment below, or via the Public Insight Network. The mixed-status questionnaire can be viewed here.