Then-U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (TX-16) meets with a Edgar and Maricruz, a couple who married at the U.S. border. Maricruz's immigration violations bar her from living in the U.S. with her husband. Photo: Medium blog of Beto O'Rourke
Then-U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (TX-16) meets with a Edgar and Maricruz, a couple who married at the U.S. border. Maricruz's immigration violations bar her from living in the U.S. with her husband. Photo: Medium blog of Beto O'Rourke

The Forgotten American Citizens of the Immigration Debate

American Families United fights for the most neglected part of the immigration debate: American citizens.


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In 2005, Randall Emery hit a breaking point. It was Christmas and as a present to the country, the House of Representatives passed new immigration reform. The proposed Sensenbrenner Bill, named for its sponsor, Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, made it a felony to illegally cross into the U.S. and upgraded punishments for those who overstayed their visas. The bill never passed the Senate, but created an uproar around immigration that lasted well into 2006.

One of the immigrants potentially affected was Emery’s wife, Paola. She came to the U.S. from Colombia on a 10-year, multiple-visit tourist visa, but it was canceled after her and Emery applied for a marriage visa. For more than three years, Emery had been waiting for the visa to be processed, eventually suing the government for its lack of action on her behalf.

“Her case was as straight-forward a case as possible. She filled out all the paperwork and just needed it to be processed,” said Emery. “She ended up getting fingerprinted four different times.”

In his frustration, he looked for others in his situation and found few at first.

“A lot of people I encountered were friendly, but not many focused on American citizens,” said Emery.

Founding American Families United

That was until he met David Guard, an American citizen whose wife from Mexico was in a similar situation to Paola. Together, they created American Families United in 2006. The non-profit organization lobbies for legislative solutions that protect American citizens’ rights on par with immigrants’ rights in an effort to eliminate family separation.

For a long time, it was understood that American citizens could marry whoever they wanted. In 1965, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act (Hart-Cellar Act). While the bill set a cap of administering 170,000 visas per year, it did not apply to those administered to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, including spouses and children. It stayed the same in the 1990 Immigration Act, which raised the yearly cap to 700,000 visas from 1992 to 1994, and 675,000 after 1994.

In the case of illegal immigrants, they could appear in front of an immigration judge if married to a U.S. citizen for a waiver of inadmissibility. Inadmissibility is an immigration term relating to an immigrant’s fraudulent attempts to enter, or stay in the U.S. through unauthorized border crossing, false or outdated documents, or misrepresentation. All render the immigrant inadmissible to the country, but a judge would weigh their offenses against the right of their American spouse to marry whomever they pleased.

According to Paul Donnelly, a media and political consultant for American Families United, the process didn’t guarantee a path to citizenship for every immigrant, but did so for the majority who faced non-violent, technical violations.

“As long as your lover wasn’t an axe-murderer, they didn’t make you choose between your marriage and country,” said Donnelly.

At the very worst, a small fine was issued to pay for immigration violations.

IIRIRA and the Policy of Mass Deportation

Everything changed in 1996. That year, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, IIRIRA for short. The law made major changes to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. It made more crimes punishable by deportation (some non-violent), fast tracked the deportation process, and made it much harder for illegal immigrants to become legal. According to Dara Lind, in her Vox article about IIRIRA, it “invented immigration enforcement as we know it today—where deportation is a constant and plausible threat to millions of immigrants.”

Allyson—who wished to only be identified by her first name—is a community outreach specialist in Philadelphia and an American Families United board member. She recalled the rush to get in front of an immigration judge before the law took effect on April 1, 1997.

“At the time, I remember many couples speeding up marriage plans and others frantically trying to expedite existing immigration cases,” she said in an email.

Most important for those Americans married or dating illegal immigrants, IIRIRA changed the regulations around inadmissibility. First, depending on the length of illegal stay in the U.S., an illegal immigrant is subject to a three-year ban for staying more than 180 days and a 10-year ban for staying more than a year.

Lind pointed out that rather than stunt the growth of illegal immigrants in the U.S., the number exploded after IIRIRA. Before, many immigrants moved back and forth across the border between jobs in the U.S. and families in Mexico. After, with more active enforcement along the border, more settled in the U.S. rather than run the risk of being caught and served a ban moving back and forth.

Because most illegal immigrants married to American citizens stay more than a year in the U.S., most are subject to a 10-year ban. It’s even worse for cases of misrepresentation, where offenders now face a lifetime ban for falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen.

“It’s a capital case with traffic court rules,” said Emery.

For three or ten-year bans, immigrants can still go in front of an immigration judge and appeal for a waiver of inadmissibility based on hardship, but it is not considered on behalf of U.S. spouses who either have to stay and raise children alone, or move out of the country. If an immigrant appears in front of a judge and fails, they are forced to serve their ban.

Emery’s co-founder, David Guard, had to move his family to Mexico for a couple of years to avoid separation from his wife. It’s a scenario all too common for the affected members of American Families United. The organization started with just two, but now has more than 500 affected members who live both inside and outside of the U.S. Outside support has also grown to over 2,500 likes on Facebook.

Of the 44 million foreign born people in the U.S., approximately 11 million are in the country illegally. According to the Migration Policy Institute, approximately 1.2 million illegal immigrants are married to a U.S. citizen.

While Emery doesn’t believe the number to be in the millions, there is still a significant number of U.S. citizens affected.

“It’s as much as a medium-sized city,” he said.

Power in Numbers

Part of the membership problem for American Families United is a fear from affected families of exposing their situation. To build trust, members often relate similar stories and experiences to one another.

“There’s a strength in coming forward,” said Emery.

That strength has transformed into a tight-knit, growing community of people all advocating on behalf of American citizens’ rights. To put that into action, American Families United organizes many meetings with legislators so its members can relay their stories and express their frustrations face-to-face.

“When you look someone in the eye, they have to treat you as a human,” said Emery.

Most of the meetings with legislators ask for basic protections and due diligence processing cases, but the organization has taken it a step further and acquired sponsors and introduced legislation to Congress.

Legislative Aspirations

In 2013, the first iteration of the American Families United Act was introduced to the Senate and passed, but never reached the House. It asked for consideration of hardship on behalf of U.S. citizens when granting waivers of inadmissibility in cases of unlawful presence and misrepresentation. It also eliminated the lifetime ban for misrepresentation and set a three-year limit on bans for knowingly committing the violation.

In 2015, then-Texas representative Beto O’Rourke reintroduced the bill to the House; it also passed, but never made it to the Senate for voting. O'Rourke's last action on the bill before running for Senate was to reintoduce it again to the House in 2017. It was referred to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security in March, but didn't make it any farther.  

It is currently an orphan bill with no sponsors, but American Family United leaders say they’ve found more support from legislators. They also now have members all over the country calling and making their voices heard.

It is not included on any new drafts of the much anticipated and discussed DREAMERs legislation. In regard to that, Emery only has one question.

“If the DREAM Act passes, why not support citizens?”


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