- Posted July 9, 2014 by
Team iReport featured this story
This iReport is part of an assignment:
President’s immigration plan: Your views
I Married an Undocumented Immigrant
“I want [people] to understand immigrants are people too and that they’ve often been through very difficult circumstances and that’s why they’re here,” the mother of two told CNN. “We need to be respectful toward them and have compassion.”
When she was nine months pregnant, her husband was arrested and jailed in August 2011 for not paying a ticket for driving without a license, she said. As she panicked and drove to bail him out, she realized this is probably something a lot of mixed-status immigrant families go through.
“What happened to us has given me a small taste of the fear that undocumented families live with every day.”
CNN has not verified all of the claims in this iReport. Read the rest of her essay below, or share your personal story about immigration.
- zdan, CNN iReport producer
In 2010, I married an undocumented immigrant.
It wasn’t because I was fearless about the risk of deportation, naive to the fact that many see him as a criminal, or most importantly, because he tricked me. It was, as with most other marriages, because Rafael and I were in love and wanted to have children and spend our lives together.
We met at a Mexican restaurant where we were both working in 2008. I thought he was attractive and one fateful Taco Tuesday, he asked me on a date. He was so nervous that his hands were shaking, which I found endearing. He told me on our second date how he came to the United States, as though to say, “if you don’t want to deal with this and all the issues it brings, you don’t have to go out with me again.” But, I decided to give him a chance.
He had grown up in Mexico, with his mother, siblings and extended family. His father was abusive and left when he was small. He was poor. He caught animals in the jungle when he got too hungry, and made shoes from the rubber of abandoned tires. His mother had some health problems, and they struggled to pay hospital bills. Because of simple poverty, Rafael quit high school and began working as soon as possible. He worked at a coffee factory 12 to 15 hours a day, mainly carrying heavy loads of coffee to be delivered to customers around the world. Outside of drug trafficking, there were few other opportunities. Being uneducated and having no ties to the United States made getting a visa to go there legally impossible. So when a cousin offered to front the bill to bring Rafael to the United States illegally, he jumped at the chance.
And so, a short time later, after running for several days through the desert, drinking water from animal troughs and listening to coyotes describe others who had gone before him and perished, he made his way to the east coast, and began working in the food industry.
Was it the right thing to do? I know there are many who would say unequivocally, no. You want to live here, you do it legally or not at all. I wonder if these individuals would let their family members die of treatable illnesses because they could not pay for care, or starve, or become victims of drug violence rather than break the law. I do not ask this question to minimize the importance of following the law. But, I do hope to dispel the myth that this is a simple moral issue that can be accurately viewed in black and white. Our system is broken, but that does not mean our compassion has to be.
And now for the part of our story when I am 9 months pregnant with our first child and Rafael gets sent to federal prison. I hate to let the cat out of the bag, but many undocumented immigrants drive without a license because, well, they’re undocumented immigrants and they can’t get licenses. In my husband’s case, this infraction landed him in jail.
So I am two weeks from my due date. The baby feels like it's literally going to arrive at any moment. And I get a call from an unknown gentleman asking me if I’ve filed paperwork for Rafael’s citizenship. Contrary to popular belief, marrying an American citizen does not make one an American citizen. There was no path to citizenship for Rafael, because he had entered the country without inspection. If he were to leave the country in order to apply for legal residency, there would be a 10 year bar because he entered illegally. That means we would have to live in Mexico for 10 years with no means of knowing whether we would ever be allowed back in. That was simply not a risk we were willing to take.
Why do you want to know if I’ve filed paperwork, I wondered? “Well, he’s been arrested,” said the voice of the federal agent on the other end of the line. My first thought was “I’m going to kill him,” and my second was, “Who is going to hold my hand when I go into labor?” I knew that I had taken a risk in marrying an undocumented immigrant, and that I was experiencing the consequences of choosing a partner who did not have the legal rights of an American. But, that didn’t stop me from crying tears of panic and frustration as I spent the next day driving to the Correctional Facility downstate only to be told that he was being held by immigration and that even though I had paid bail and spent hours in the car, they wouldn’t release him and I couldn’t speak to him. I then spent several days on the phone trying to find out where he was (eventually I discovered he had been transferred to a federal prison several hours away), and whether there was a possibility that I could get him out (preferably before our baby arrived.)
Five days after his arrest I was able to pay $5000 bail and pick up my husband from a prison way out in the middle of nowhere, thanks to the help of family and friends. He was quiet and disheveled and unable to say much except, “I’m sorry.” My anger dissipated long before we finally stepped through our front door to the sound of him sobbing into his hands. We were utterly grateful to be together again.
Just over a week later our son was born. At the last minute, we decided to name him Rafael too, which means “God heals.” I had lost my only sibling to suicide a couple of months prior, and it seemed fitting. My parents were going through hell but having their first grandchild was a little glimpse of heaven.
Because of the backlog of immigration cases, Rafael finally returned to court for his hearing over two years after the arrest. As it turns out, we do have a process for legalizing immigrants who enter without inspection. They just have to get arrested first. So the whole ordeal was a blessing in disguise - at least we hope so. We had to prove 4 things. The first is that we are truly married. With a marriage license, a two year old, and a baby on the way, there are few who would argue otherwise. The second was that he had been here for ten years before the arrest, and the third was good character. We had all sorts of documents and letters of support galore. The most difficult requirement was that we had to prove "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" for the American family member (me) if the immigrant was deported. Being separated from one’s spouse and raising your kids alone is not enough. Moving your family to a country like Mexico, where alarming rates of violence and poverty abound is helpful to your case, but on its own, still not enough. What you need is a medical concern. Here is a sentence you don’t hear too often: Fortunately, I was depressed.
I’m not sure if it was postpartum, trauma, grief or just plain old clinical depression, but sometimes it felt like I couldn’t stop crying. My brother died an extremely overmedicated veteran, plus I was breastfeeding, so I had no desire for antidepressants. But I went to therapy, and was diagnosed with major depression. Without the support of my family and my therapist, it would get worse. So I kept going to therapy. And after maternity leave, I went back to work.
I work at a non-profit which provides mental health and suicide prevention education. We talk about topics that have been taboo for a long time, and are finally being recognized. We do this because the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that it is there. I felt like I was finally getting to a place in my career where I could do some good. I could do my best to turn my sweet brother’s death into a reason for people to listen to me, to start to understand how to prevent suicide, (the third leading cause of death for young people), and de-stigmatize mental illness (which often leads to suicide). I testified to all of this in court.
We are still awaiting the judge’s final decision. She was not allowed to tell us her decision until visas become available. The US only issues 4000 of these visas nationally per year for this type of case, a small fraction of the number of people placed in immigration proceedings. Another 4000 will become availabe at the start of the federal year in October, and we are hoping for one of these. We feel fairly confident that we wll be able to stay, because after hearing our story, the Prosecuting Attorney had no objections to the cancellation of Rafael’s deportation. She said that if Rafael were deported, I would suffer, my family would suffer, and ultimately our community would suffer. I am grateful for her understanding.
I often think of other immigrants in Rafael’s situation whose spouses may not be able to come up with money for bail, or pay a lawyer, or even figure out the process of legal recourse available to them. I thank God every day that we are able to stay here together with our children, and my parents, to whom we are very close. What happened to us has given me a small taste of the fear that undocumented families live with every day, and a greater understanding of the complexities that make immigration issues so difficult to resolve.
The fear of separation is great, but now parents are willingly sending their beloved children across the border unaccompanied because they see so little hope where they are. As Americans, most of us have no idea what it is like to be so hopeless for our children’s futures that we send them away. So I hope that we can at least have compassion on those who are still struggling with their immigration status and an unknown future, especially the young ones who are in desperate need of protection. We need to fix our broken immigration system, yes, and as soon as possible. But in the mean time we need to do the decent thing, which is to protect these children coming from bleak circumstances, and provide the hope for a future that they so desperately need.