“I feel like I’ve changed her life… I feel like I’ve screwed her life up,” Joel laments head in hands, fighting back the tears. Joel, a Mexican immigrant who is undocumented, is facing at least a ten year unlawful presence ban from the U.S. He planned on staying in the U.S. for just a few years to earn some money, but then he met Alyssa, “She’s my right hand, mi media naranja” (my other orange half or soul mate).
When Alyssa, a U.S. citizen, married Joel over ten years ago, they gave little thought to federal laws. They were both musicians and met in their church choir. Even though they were from two different countries they both grew up in small, rural communities and had shared values of faith, family and hard work. They married and had a baby. They lived the American Dream of home ownership and have another baby on the way.
They were told by their attorney to wait for immigration reform, as there is virtually no hope for their family to adjust Joel’s legal status under the current immigration policies. His only other option for adjustment of status was to return to Mexico for at least10 years.
“Where are my rights, my child’s rights as a U.S. citizen? I don’t think any American citizen should be separated from their spouse for this. We can’t even pay a fine.” Alyssa voices her frustration passionately.
Their reality shatters the popular myth that marriage to a U.S. citizen is a direct and easy pathway to citizenship. Alyssa’s experience, and the experience of tens of thousands of other U.S. citizens, supports the position that the full rights and benefits of citizenship are not extended equally to all Americans. Alyssa’s story demands that we reevaluate the assumed benefits of U.S. citizenship in mixed-status marriage.
Alyssa and Joel’s story and the stories of other mixed-status couples are rarely mentioned, especially the ways in which citizen spouses too become marginalized. During the last eight years I’ve talked with many mixed-status couples and U.S. citizen spouses consistently discuss several challenges.
Experiences of Marginalization
Nearly everyone the couple encounters, who knows about their immigration situation, says something along the lines of, “but you’re married, I don’t understand why you’re having all of these immigration problems.” Most people don’t realize that since 1996 that stereotypical “Green Card” marriages for undocumented spouses, especially those with extended unlawful presence in the U.S. or multiple entries, have become relatively outdated. In those situations, marriage alone cannot help someone without documentation adjust his/her legal status. As Abby, a U.S. citizen spouse said, “Nobody gets what it’s like.”
U.S. citizen spouses report that they’ve lost numerous benefits and rights. Here are just a few of the more common issues discussed. Because most employers require a spouse’s social security number to access benefits, citizen spouses aren’t usually able to share their employment benefits with their undocumented spouses. This is important as most undocumented immigrants do not have their own health insurance or a job that provides employer-based insurance. In some cases, couples have trouble even getting a marriage license. Couples report having to figure out which city or county will marry them without a social security number. U.S. citizens that would normally qualify for Earned Income Tax Credit are not eligible if their spouse has an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). This was also the case in 2008 when the federal government sent economic stimulus payments to eligible families. Citizen spouses have even had trouble getting car insurance in their own names. Additionally, couples face restrictions and risks on travel. Most undocumented spouses don’t have a valid driver’s license, but some drive out of necessity (e.g., work, family obligations, etc.). Mixed-status couples cannot fly anywhere together and certainly cannot leave the U.S. together—at least not if they plan to return together.
These citizens feel betrayed by their country when their rights are taken from them.
Mixed-status couples including U.S. citizens experience tremendous distress. They can live a clandestine life in the U.S. but face chronic distress and fear that the rug will be pulled out from underneath them at any moment by falling into immigration detention or deportation proceedings. This is especially true for families that include immigrants of color living in anti-immigrant communities. And this doesn’t even consider the compounded stress and oppression experienced by same-sex couples who are also mixed-status. For many couples, every time they say goodbye they know it could be their last. Even for families that haven’t had a family member detained or deported, most of them know families who have experienced this trauma.
When a spouse has been deported (although some families are pushed out and leave on their own as the stress of living without legal status becomes too stressful), the family may relocate to that spouse’s country of origin or in a few cases, an entirely different country. For the most part, undocumented immigrants are migrating from developing nations, with few job prospects. Therefore, exiled families often see their incomes reduced dramatically. Access to quality education, healthcare, and concerns regarding public safety are often mentioned. The final option, and also the least desirable, is to live separate from a spouse and/or children in two different countries. For couples dealing with medical and economic issues, this becomes their difficult reality.
American families are having their families terrorized by U.S. immigration policies. No human is illegal, no family should live in fear, and every citizen should get to be with their other half of the orange.
How can I help? Get involved with groups like American Families United, an advocacy group for mixed-status couples.
Schueths, April M. “Life and Love Outside the Citizenship Binary: Mixed-Status Couples in the U.S.” In In Between the Shadows of Citizenship. Eds. April M. Schueths and Jodie Lawston (under review).
April M. Schueths and Jodie Lawston (Eds). In Between the Shadows of Citizenship: Mixed-Status Families (under review).
Schueths, April M. 2014. “‘It’s almost like White Supremacy’: Interracial Mixed-Status Couples Facing Racist Nativism.” Ethnic and Racial Studies (in press).
Schueths, April M. 2012. “Where Are My Rights?” “Compromised Citizenship in Mixed Status Marriage.” Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 39(4): 97-109.
April M. Schueths, Ph.D., LCSW is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia Southern University. Within the broad area of social stratification her research focuses on the intersection of race/ethnicity with social structures including family, education, and health. She has peer-reviewed articles published in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Latino Studies, Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, and Teaching in Higher Education. She is the co-founder and editor of www.SociologySource.org, a site dedicated to sharing resources and ideas for teaching sociology. You can learn more about April at her website, www.aprilschueths.com.
Editor’s Note: All names have been changed to protect anonymity.