Immigration Reform For Mixed-Status Families Is Political And Deeply Personal

Immigrants And Their Families Optimistic About Reform Ahead Of Obama Speech

For some couples, the morning kiss goodbye is an act as routine and emotionally involved as pulling on a winter coat or downing a cup of coffee. But when Alysa Medina says goodbye to her husband there is always something extra, often unspoken there.

"I know -- and unfortunately my two oldest children are old enough to know -- what we are facing," said Medina, a Tennessee stay-at-home mother of four whose husband entered the country illegally from his native Mexico almost 21 years ago. "Every time my husband walks out the door, there's a chance that it might be the last time we see him."

The Medinas are among the 16.5 million people whom the Pew Hispanic Center estimates are living in mixed-status families, households where some members are citizens and others are not. Other mixed-status families include undocumented immigrants, legal migrants, U.S. citizens or some other combination thereof. For Medina and many immigrant advocates, immigration reform is not simply a matter of politics. It's deeply personal.

So when a bipartisan group of senators announced Monday that they had reached an agreement on the broad outlines of immigration reform, some responded emotionally, others thoughtfully, analytically -- many with perceptible glee. When the president takes on the same topic in a speech Tuesday in Las Vegas, most will be listening carefully.

"There are a couple of things that actually denote that this moment, this proposal is special," said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns at the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based civil rights organization. "Not the least among them is the fact that the blueprint is bipartisan. 'Bipartisan' is an almost extinct word these days. It's truly like a rare bird."

And there are other reasons to be hopeful, Martinez de Castro said. Martinez de Castro, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Mexico, has spent nearly every day since November talking to elected officials, meeting with immigration reform advocates, White House staffers and even the president.

"Even with the headlines shifting to different subjects -- and rightly so, after the tragedy in Newtown -- what's so encouraging here is that the conversations on immigration have not stopped. It's very, very clear that the 2012 election sent a message, a message about the American people wanting solutions. Latino voters and Asian voters are deeply invested in this moment and frankly, we are part of creating the game change that led us to where we are today."

Martinez de Castro praised portions of the Senate blueprint that call for special, and potentially more rapid, pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children and who are enrolled in college or enlisted in the military (a group sometimes collectively referred to as Dreamers), as well as agricultural workers and those who hold degrees in areas in which the United States is facing a labor shortage. The latter are essential to the modern U.S. economy, and a system is needed to better assist these immigrants, Martinez de Castro said. Dreamers and agricultural workers rank among the most vulnerable undocumented immigrants, she said.

"A year ago we were dealing with a whole different ball of wax, where people were throwing around terms like 'self-deportation' and suggesting things like, 'We'll deal with agricultural workers and Dreamers first, and then maybe we will see what we can do about the rest.' That's not what's happening here. That's not where we are."

Among Martinez de Castro's concerns: the absence of any measures that would ensure equal treatment for people in gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender relationships, who are often ineligible to apply for various visas and immigration relief because even their marriages and certain family relationships are not recognized by federal law.

The blueprint, which Martinez de Castro described repeatedly as a "solid start," lacks details about what might be done to ensure that any system established to verify the legal ability of individuals to work in the U.S. contains accurate, up-to-date information and includes a clear process by which to correct errors.

Also missing: what the government might do to ensure that the legal immigration system works more rapidly. Right now, unskilled workers from parts of Latin America, and even some skilled workers with medical training from portions of Asia, face waits of nearly 20 years to obtain a visa, the legal permission needed to enter the U.S., she said.

When Medina married her husband seven years ago, the few family members in Ohio and friends in Tennessee with whom she shared her husband's undocumented status often asked an irritating set of questions: Why doesn't he just get in line? Why didn't he apply for a visa and wait his turn before leaving Mexico?

"People don't understand the complexity of immigration law," Medina said. "They don't understand that it's a completely failed policy. People don't understand that there are people caught in the middle of this, there are no options and those that do exist may mean that you are pulled away from your family."

An undocumented immigrant who marries a U.S. citizen can be required to leave the country for three to 10 years. Undocumented immigrants who have been caught inside or attempting to enter the U.S. illegally more than once can be permanently banned from returning, regardless of marriage, family or responsibilities. The Obama administration has already announced changes, which will take effect in March, that eliminate the required departures and separations.

Those possibilities are never far from Medina's mind.

Medina's husband has a sixth-grade education. (The Huffington Post agreed not to reveal her husband's name or the specific community where they live due to Medina's concern that her husband could be deported, but confirmed the information Medina shared.) Medina's husband stopped attending school in Mexico not long after his father died, leaving the family with no income. By 21, he was a trained stonemason. But with construction booming and no visas available for more than a decade, Medina's husband decided to take the risk of crossing the border illegally.

He wanted to find better-paying work in the U.S. so that his younger brothers and sisters would have the chance to finish school. With the money Medina's husband sent home, most of them did, and all but one later moved to the U.S. Some arrived legally. Others did not.

"The only way to really fix our immigration system is to think about the human aspect of immigration -- why are people coming here? what kind of work are they doing? -- and the extent to which immigrants are deeply embedded in lots of communities, our economy and are part of millions of families," said Medina. "We have to get real. This week, I'm cautiously optimistic that we are on the verge of that."

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