September 15, 2009

How Immigration Policy Affects Citizens

This week, members of the anti-immigrant group – the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) – are engaged in a lobby campaign to convince Congress not to include amnesty for undocumented migrants who currently live in the US in any upcoming immigration reform. It is worth noting that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated FAIR a hate group, in part because of John Tanton, a prominent member of the board of directors, who has strong ties to white nationalist groups.

FAIR’s insistence that amnesty is unacceptable is rooted in the belief that undocumented migrants have no right to be in the US, and should not be taking jobs away from Americans. This stance is based on the false belief that “Americans” and “undocumented migrants” are two separate groups of people with divergent interests. The reality is that the lives of “Americans” are deeply intertwined with those of undocumented migrants.

People who are not U.S. citizens and are thus subject to deportation often have U.S. citizen spouses and children. In most cases, they also have extended family members who are U.S. citizens, and live in communities with citizens. Some have been in the country for a few days, but others have settled here and have been here for decades. Policies that affect non-citizens have clear consequences for citizens. I will tell one story that sheds light on this matter.

When I lived in Chicago, I met a woman named Melissa, a native-born U.S. citizen, who faced a difficult choice. She fell in love with and married a Brazilian man, Sergio. Sergio had violated the terms of his visa by leaving the United States after overstaying his visa, and then re-entered on another visa, issued by the State Department in Brazil. Because of this violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) ordered Sergio deported. Melissa had to choose between abandoning her U.S. citizenship and dissolving her union with Sergio, as Sergio is now permanently ineligible for admission to the U.S. on the basis of his immigration violations.

As this example shows, Melissa is affected severely by immigration policy, although she is not an immigrant. When I spoke with Melissa, she was flustered and found it hard to reconcile the fact that her status as a U.S. citizen did not entitle her to live in the U.S. with her spouse. She had tried every legal maneuver possible, but the law does not provide for Sergio's legalization. Melissa told me that she planned to annul the marriage. She was not willing to give up her right to remain in the United States, and has chosen to sacrifice her marriage.

Melissa's case is similar to thousands of U.S. citizens who are married to undocumented or out-of-status immigrants. Many of these immigrants were brought here as small children. Others, like Sergio, were unaware of their visa violations. Although many pundits imagine that ridding the country of undocumented immigrants will be beneficial to all citizens, the deportation of immigrants frequently has an adverse impact on their citizen spouses or children.

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