My Marriage to an Undocumented Immigrant
We were on our third date when Billy told me—hinted, really—that he was an undocumented immigrant from Central America. I remember thinking, "Well, that's not ideal." Truth was, I had no idea what that admission really meant. I was a Kentucky girl who'd recently relocated to Los Angeles. I vaguely knew that immigration was “an issue," but I didn't pretend to have a working knowledge of the ins and outs of the policies and politics behind it. My basic philosophy was that vulnerable populations like migrants should be treated with dignity and respect and that everyone should work hard to honor and follow the laws of the land. I thought to myself, "I hope if this relationship gets more serious, he goes and gets that fixed."
But “getting it fixed” wasn’t really a possibility. While he had entered the States legally with a tourist visa, he had not left when he was mandated to leave. There was no "line" for him to get in. Worker visas and residency cards from a poor country like Guatemala were essentially impossible to obtain. So when we married, we became a "mixed status" family. Living in a vulnerable situation, with the knowledge that on any given day my husband could be deported, was brutally stressful.
All over the US, there are families in similar circumstances. In 2012, it was estimated that “16.6 million people currently live in mixed-status families—with at least one unauthorized immigrant.” Many are children with US citizenship living with undocumented parents. These kids live with the ever-present fear they will come home from school to any empty house, their parents having been deported. Yes, it happens. Actress Diane Guerrero, in her book, In the Country We Love, describes it this way:
Deported. Long before I fully understood what that word meant, I’d learned to dread it. With every ring of my family’s doorbell, with every police car passing on the street, a horrifying possibility hung in the air: My parents might one day be sent back to Colombia. That fear permeated every part of my childhood.
When this fear becomes a reality, as it did in her case, families are separated and torn apart. The current immigration policies held by the United States federal government are responsible for creating these artificial widows and orphans.
When Congress was considering the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, Billy and I were engaged. He was working in construction and called me from the job site to tell me the bill had failed. (When your family life hangs in the balance, you keep up with immigration news.) Everyone on his crew—all undocumented immigrants—was distressed and discouraged. Three weeks later, a related bill died in Congress, effectively ending the immigration discussion for years.
In 2014, after additional measures failed in Congress, President Obama initiated an Executive Order to provide temporary relief for undocumented parents of children who are US citizens. The order is called “Deferred Action for Parents of Americans,” or DAPA. DAPA aims to protect the nuclear family by preventing parents being removed from their children. However, Texas and 25 other states banded together to challenge the president's order and DAPA was frozen in February 2015.
The net result is that parents are still vulnerable to being deported on a daily basis. Obama has deported more immigrants than any other president and additional raids are planned, so the fear is grounded in fact. Estimates suggest that approximately half a million parents of children who are US citizens—typically fathers—were deported between 2009 and 2013. These family separations affect children in every way, with financial insecurity, emotional upheaval, and even physical relocation, as many kids move in with distant relatives or become part of the foster care system.
Currently, the DAPA challenge has reached the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in April and is in the midst of deciding if the Executive Order is constitutional. A decision is expected any day. If the court upholds the Executive Order, approximately 3.7 million immigrant parents will have the opportunity to apply for temporary work authorization. Another ruling could keep the legislation suspended while legal battles continue, leaving families in limbo. I empathize with the unnerving worry felt by mixed-status families, and I often find myself watching the news, listening and waiting in solidarity with them.
As it turns out, the American church is also a mixed-status family. According to the Pew Research Center, undocumented immigrants "come primarily from Latin America and the Caribbean, and the overwhelming majority of them, an estimated 83 percent, are Christian." The American church community—our church community—includes generational US citizens, undocumented immigrants, naturalized US citizens, legal permanent residents, and undocumented parents with US citizen children. Many of the immigrant families in our midst find support and encouragement in their faith, especially in the midst of crisis.
And no matter whether we understand every family’s situation, or whether we agree with how reform should be legislated, we are first and foremost a family. Our call as Christians to care for our brothers and sisters should not change with the political climate. We must carry the tension, the stress of knowing that someone in our own church family is at risk. As the book of Hebrews reminds us, we are called to
Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:1–3).
For my husband and I, the stress of being a mixed-status has finally resolved. Our marriage opened the door for my husband to gain a green card as the spouse of a US citizen, and when he finally held that green card in his hand, I felt a wash of relief. Years later while sitting in his citizenship ceremony, I sobbed when the officiant said, "You've come a long way."
With many in our faith family still walking the isolated road of life in the immigration shadows, I pray that someday, they too will be able to experience that same relief.
Sarah Quezada is a writer and nonprofit professional living in Atlanta with her Guatemalan husband and two kids. She has a master’s in sociology and writes regularly about social justice, family, and living across cultures on her blog A Life with Subtitles. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.