June 11, 2010

Forced to Choose Between Family and Country

In the United States of America, the spouses of US citizens can be deported, no matter how long they have lived in the United States, no matter how many US citizen children they have, and no matter how much they love their family.

In Chicago in 2008, I interviewed nine couples that consisted of a US citizen married to an undocumented migrant. Each couple discussed the implications of US immigration law to their families. I discuss this project in this video:

This is one of the stories from this project:
Fatima is 30 years old, graduated from Loyola University, and works as a family therapist, counseling families whose children are in juvenile detention. She likes being able to help people, to give them hope, and to figure out ways to make their life better. Her husband, Antonio, paints houses for a living. He would like to go back to school, to learn a trade such as an electrician, or maybe open a business. But, life hasn’t presented him with that opportunity yet.

Fatima, along with her two sisters, was born in Mexico City. When she was four years old, her father passed away, and her mother decided that it would be easier for her to raise her three children in the U.S. She was able to obtain visas, and they came to the US on an airplane. Eventually, the whole family obtained U.S. citizenship.

Antonio was born in Michoacan, Mexico, in a small town. His father was attacked by a bull when Antonio was thirteen. This accident left him invalid, and Antonio and his brother left school to go to Mexico City to work. They found work in a car wash, and stayed there for six years, until a woman from their hometown asked Antonio to accompany her to cross over to the U.S. Antonio arrived in Dallas, and eight months later, decided to come to Chicago. In Chicago, he spent several months working as a day laborer, until he finally found a more stable job as a painter. He has been in that job now for four years, and works seven days a week most weeks.

Not too long after Antonio found his current job, he met Fatima. When I spoke with them, in May 2008, they had a two and a half years old son and had been married for three years.

Fatima and Antonio came to the community-based organization, Latinos Progresando, to see if there was anything they could do to legalize Antonio’s status. Antonio had been living here illegally since he crossed the border in 2003. Fatima said she is constantly stressed out. When he goes to work, she has to worry about whether or not there will be a raid, or if he will be stopped by the police. This stress is clearly wearing on her, as her voice broke and her eyes welled up with tears as she talked to me.

Tears began to fall profusely as Fatima told me that it hurts her deeply that Antonio wants to see his parents, and his parents want to see him, and he can’t go back to Mexico. Fatima even feels as if it is partly her fault that Antonio can’t see his parents. “A veces, yo siento que es un poco de mi culpa. Maybe, si no me hubieses conocido, no te detuviera nada aquĆ­.” Sometimes, I feel like it is my fault. Maybe, if you never met me, nothing would keep you here.

When their son was born, Fatima became ill. She continues to suffer from an immune disorder, and admits that she worries that she may not survive her next hospitalization. Her voice breaks as she tells me that she wishes she could be sure that her son would be okay were the unthinkable to happen, were she to pass away. This is one of their most pressing reasons to obtain legalization for Antonio.

Fatima says that knowing that her husband can be arrested, detained, and deported any time is very hard to deal with. In some ways, Fatima wouldn’t mind moving to Mexico, but she feels like she has given so much to the United States. She also has her student loans to pay off. And, they have to think about their son’s future. Even more poignant, she is worried that she would not be able to find or afford appropriate medical care in Mexico.

I ask Fatima what would happen if Antionio were to be deported. She says that, apart from breaking apart her family, she would suffer financially. They recently purchased a home, and, without Antonio’s income, she would have to sell the house. Also, Fatima has plans to return to school to get her Master’s in counseling, and she would not be able to do that. But, most of all, she would be emotionally devastated. Having a loving partner has enabled her to withstand life’s challenges – her own illness, her aging mother’s ailments, and her son’s all-too frequent visits to the doctor.

Fatima points out that the laws do not just affect Antonio, who is here illegally, but they also deeply affect her and her son, both of whom are U.S. citizens. As a family therapist, Fatima is well aware of the pernicious effects of family separation on children. She asks why the government would want to separate families. Fatima works with children who have turned to juvenile delinquency, in part because their parents are divorced. She does not want her child to grow up in a single parent family.

Tears well up again in Fatima’s eyes when she asks if they, too, are not humans. The importance of this family remaining together brings tears to my eyes as well. It is clear that the stress of Antonio potentially being deported is taking its toll on Fatima. It is hard for her to come to terms with why her own government would not want for a loving family such as theirs to stay together.

Fatima faces a situation where the laws of the United States do not permit herto live in this country with her family intact. Is it fair to say that she should not have chosen an undocumented immigrants for her life partner? Should she have researched immigration laws before falling in love? Was she simply foolish to imagine that her country would allow her to live in peace with her husband? Can you imagine yourself going to an immigration lawyer to find out if your chosen life partner is eligible for legalization? And, if you are told they are not, what are you supposed to do? These are hard questions, and the agony that this family faces is a clear indication that there is something fundamentally wrong with having to choose between your country and your family.

Read other stories from this project on my website.

These stories will also be featured in my forthcoming book - Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions, and Deportations in Post-9/11 America.

Pedro Guzman, husband and father of US citizens, is currently in detention - awaiting deportation. You can read his story here.

Previously posted at: http://www.racismreview.com/blog/2010/06/11/forced-to-choose-family-country/


  1. So what do you suggest? This is a tragic story, but writing a tragedy is easy, developing and implementing a public policy to address it while accounting for the 'greater good' is much more difficult. Do we make an exception for one family...or maybe two...or three...?

    C'mon Professor, use all that education and recommend a viable solution.

  2. Anonymous: Two viable solutions:
    1) allow people who have overstayed their visas or entered the US illegally to apply for legalization on the basis of family petitions such as marriage with no penalty.

    2) allow people who face deportation to present evidence on their ties to the United States and lack of ties to their home country.

    For me, that would just be a bare minimum, but should be fairly easy to pass and implement.